Thursday, December 15, 2011

Second period mistakes cost Express

 Players look on as Devin DiDiomete (28) and Phil Rauch (20) fight at the end of the second period (photo by Chicago Express)

Coming into Wednesday night's game, the Toledo Walleye (DET/CHI) and the Chicago Express (CBJ) had already met six times this season, splitting wins evenly between them at three a piece. Chicago took the first three decisions, and the Walleye took the last three. After Wednesday's final decision, the Walleye have now won four, claiming a 4-3 victory over the Express.

The game didn't start out so bad for the Express. Mike Embach scored a beauty in the first period, taking advantage of a turnover at the opposite blue line to fly through the neutral zone, deke around three defenders, and put the puck top shelf. The goal sent the Express into the locker room with a 1-0 lead at the first intermission. But when the team stepped onto the ice in the second, things turned disastrous.

Walleye forward Christopher DiDomenico scored twice less than four minutes into the second period, first on a power play, then at even strength, making it 2-1 in favor of Toledo. After the Express began trailing for the first time in the game, everything went wrong. Pucks were continuously turned over, the defense was sloppy, and Express had significant trouble putting passes on their teammates' tape.

The Walleye took advantage, and struck again. Allen York misplayed the puck 10 feet in front of his own net, and suddenly Kyle Rogers had his sixth goal of the year. Just seconds later, Joey Martin got another puck past York, and it was 4-1 Walleye.

Instead of getting inspired, the Express got angry. A lot of chirping began. During a faceoff, Bobby Robins clearly asked Nick Oslund if he wanted to fight. Oslund shook his head no. Net mouth scrums got more and more frequent as the Express tried to get some kind of spark going. After putting only five shots on goal in the second period, the Express' frustration finally spilled into a full-fledged fight just after the horn indicating the end of the period.

Devin DiDiomete, fresh off injured reserve, went up against Phil Rauch. Though smaller, DiDiomete looked to get the better of Rauch, knocking Rauch's helmet off and eventually taking him down to the ice. The only punches Rauch landed were right on DiDiomete's helmet, resulting in a bloody hand for Rauch. DiDiomete was assessed a two-minute roughing minor, a five-minute fighting major, and a ten-minute misconduct, and as a result, missed most of the third period. Rauch received just a five-minute major.

But the fight appeared to serve its purpose. The Express came out in the third period ready to battle for goals. Five minutes in, several Express players crashed the net and ended up scoring, with Kyle Ostrow getting credit for the marker. Ten minutes later, Chaz Johnson scored a rocket of a one-timer from the dot on a power play.

It was 4-3 Walleye with five minutes to go, and the Express were not going to give up. With one minute remaining, Allen York sprinted to the bench to get an extra man on to try for an equalizer. Walleye goaltender Thomas McCollum faced a flurry of shots, but nothing got through, and the Express fell short in their comeback.

Though there were at least two goals that Allen York would no doubt like to have back, he made 29 saves on 33 shots as the Walleye outshot the Express 33-20.

Just after the final horn, there was an altercation between Chaz Johnson and Matt Krug of the Walleye. Something Krug said or did very obviously set Johnson off, sending him into hysterics as a referee struggled to hold him back. Johnson smashed his stick on the ice before finally heading down the tunnel, leaving the Walleye to celebrate their victory.

Given the nature of the scene, I wouldn't be surprised if Johnson faces any supplemental discipline from the league for unsportsmanlike conduct. It's fitting, as that capped off a game in which Johnson surpassed his 1,000th pro career penalty minute (he had four penalty minutes in total on the night).

Friday night, the Express face the Elmira Jackals (OTT/ANA). Tyler Donati, named the second star of the game with two assists, said the game plan against the Jackals is pretty obvious: "Play like we played in the third."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Express down Wings in a shootout thriller

 Kyle Ostrow scores the game-winning shootout goal (photo by Chicago Express)

It wasn't looking so good for the Chicago Express as they headed into the third period Friday night, down 4-2 to the Kalamazoo Wings. A few minutes into the third period, Eric Kattelus made it 5-2. The clock was ticking.

After two power play goals in the first 20 minutes, the Express looked to have stalled out in the latter half of the second period. They were finding it tough to carry pucks through the offensive zone, and shots from the blue line were immediately blocked by Wings players on the defensive. Worst of all, Express goaltender Allen York wasn't getting a lot of help.

But the crowd of 3,090 in the Sears Centre Arena got loud in the third, and the Express seemed to respond in turn. "Nothing out of the ordinary was said during the second intermission, we just knew that we had to step it up for the final 20," Express defenseman Scott Wietecha said after the game. "We were confident that if we went out, played hard and stuck to our style of play, we'd have a chance to climb back into it."

Wietecha (a Capitals development and rookie camp attendee) started it off for the Express in the third, getting a fluky goal from nearly center ice. He blasted the puck to the net, and goaltender Maxime Clermont got just a piece of it, sending the puck tipping off the top of his glove and into the net.

It was Wietecha's first professional goal, and judging by his delayed jubilant reaction, he didn't immediately know that he'd scored. "I didn't know it went in at first, but was pretty pumped when I realized I finally got my first one out of the way," Wietecha said.

The goal also set off the Express comeback.

By the time Wietecha scored, the Express had been down 5-2, and with Wietecha making it 5-3, the Express had about 16 minutes to make it a game.

They did. Wietecha's goal included, the Express scored three unanswered goals to tie the game and send it to overtime. Two goals were against starter Maxime Clermont, but just after Mike Embach made the score 5-4, Clermont lost his mask in a scrum and appeared to be cut in the face. Bleeding from his forehead, Clermont left the game and watched the rest of the action from the bench while back-up Riley Gill took over in the Kalamazoo crease.

Gill surrendered a goal to Chad Painchaud, his second of the night, and the Express had the game tied at 5-5, sending it to overtime.

Overtime was largely uneventful until 1:46 to go, when Painchaud took a costly hooking penalty to put the Express shorthanded for the remainder of overtime.

Your best penalty killer is often your goaltender, and Allen York was brilliant while the Wings had several quality scoring chances during their power play.

Scoreless through five minutes of extra time, the game went to a shootout. Kyle Ostrow scored in the fifth round of the shootout to finally get the Express the 6-5 victory.

One to watch: Mike Embach
I could barely take my eyes off Embach whenever he got on the ice. He had very fancy footwork and deked like Datsyuk, but a lot of times when he was carrying the puck, his moves were too fancy for his own teammates, and he'd end up sending a blind pass to no one. While he was busy dancing into the offensive zone, it seemed like he lost track of where his teammates were, and even where he was, and several times, he'd turn it over to the opposing defense by the time he got to the top of the circles.

Even so, watching his moves through two periods, I knew it was a matter of time before Embach put one in the net, and he did about seven minutes into the third. Embach needs some time in the pro leagues (he comes from four years at Ferris State) to really get his hockey sense under control while he's weaving around the D so that his passes can be on point and he can get farther into the zone. But the 23-year-old undrafted forward is a fun player to watch and might end up getting somewhere, even if it's only as far as the AHL.

Development camps and preparing for a pro career
Since I got to ask Scott Wietecha some questions, I had to ask about his experience at  Capitals camps this summer and how they helped him start his pro career. He had very positive things to say about his time in Washington.
"I definitely think that being at the Caps camps better prepared me for my first year pro. It has given me confidence coming into the season. I learned a lot from the coaches and the players that were there. Skating with Caps players and seeing how they prepared for the season was definitely beneficial. In Washington, I better learned from the coaches and staff what it takes to make a professional hockey player and picked up things on the ice too. It was a great experience."