For the past six years D.J. Abisalih has been the Wheeling Nailers broadcaster, and he's got a unique perspective on a potential Fort Wayne-Toledo match-up because the Nailers finished a three-game series Sunday against the Komets just after they played two games in Toledo. The Nailers are 4-4-1 against Walleye this season and 1-4-0 against the Komets after Sunday's 2-1 Fort Wayne victory.
"I think you can definitely look at Toledo and Fort Wayne and say they are the true powers-to-be in the Central Division this year," Abisalih said. "It seems like they are on a crash course for each other in the second round of the playoffs. I'd be shocked if it wasn't."
Despite a 28-23-6 record, the Nailers are six points out of a playoff spot in the North Division, easily the ECHL's toughest this season. Wheeling has also likely played the league's toughest schedule, including the games against Toledo and Fort Wayne. The Nailers are a good team and a good measuring stick between the Walleye and Komets.
"Both teams are clearly high-powered offensively," Abisalih said. "It's very fun to watch their upbeat style of play. Obviously, Toledo has the Spink brothers (Tyson and Tylor) and they have guys like (A.J.) Jenks and (Alden) Hirschfeld, and the list goes on and on, but it's cool because Fort Wayne also seems to have that kind of a set-up with (Shawn) Szydlowski and company. This past two weeks was my first two times seeing Trevor Cheek, and he's a huge player in this league. I wonder for Fort Wayne's sake if he is similar to a role where Mitch Heard was a couple of years ago where he's in the AHL for most of the season, but when he's here he performs up to that level. There is definitely something you can see on the offensive side of things that both teams are explosive on the power play so that can be beneficial."
Upfront the teams may be very similar, but defense is a different story.
"Defensively, Toledo loves to activate their D and get involved in the rush as much as they can," Abisalih said. "(Jared) Nightengale is really their one true stay- at-home, shutdown defenseman. Even then, I've never really liked Toledo defensively. They love to rush, rush, rush and try and beat you that way. We beat them 7-6 in a game this year, so that tells you a lot.
"As for Fort Wayne, Cody Sol is one of the best defensive defenseman in the league. He anchors things back there and takes up a lot of minutes, especially with a lot of valuable time, especially, on the penalty kill. I see a lot of value in him. Not really sure how I feel about the rest of the Fort Wayne D-men. It seems like (Will) Webber has some physical side to him."
Abisalih also has an interesting take on the teams' goaltending.
"In previous years it's been Jeff Lerg and Pat Nagle carrying the mail for both teams," he said. "(With Toledo's) Jake Paterson, the Nailers have had the best of pretty much most of the season so I'm not sure how sold I am on him or Cal Heeter, for that matter. On the Fort Wayne side of things, Garrett Bartus has beaten us twice and Pat Nagle twice. I don't know how outstanding it is just because of what we've seen, but Wheeling can score goals. Maybe we haven't seen the best of the best, but Bartus, my gosh, some of the saves he's made against us have been big difference makers."
He also sees an even match-up among the coaches. Though Toledo's Dan Watson is in his first season as a head coach, he's been an assistant with the Walleye for several years. The Walleye made the conference finals two years and the Komets last year so there's plenty of playoff experience Both teams also have exceptional home crowds and fans who would travel to away games.
What would make the difference if a playoff series started this weekend?
"I see a lot more finesse in Toledo and a lot more snarl in Fort Wayne," Abisalih said. "As we've talked about the last couple of weeks, Fort Wayne has some discipline problems and it nearly has cost them a couple of times. Their power play has bailed them out, but against Toledo, will it have those opportunities for it to be able to bail them out?"
That's a glaring spot the Komets need to fix. Over their last 12 games, the Komets' opponents have had 59 power-play chances compared to 36 for Fort Wayne. That's basically two more power-play chances per game, and Toledo thrives on that kind of advantage.
There are 15 games left in the regular season, just enough time to work on improving some things to prepare ready for what everyone is looking forward to, even someone like Abisalih who won't be involved.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Blake Sebring at firstname.lastname@example.org.