[Author’s Note: Yes, I was supposed to get this post up yesterday, but I was stricken with the 48 Hour Sinus Infection From Hell. Please forgive me.]
Going into the final week of the regular season, the Express needed not only to take nearly every point in their last three games, they also needed a little help from the teams in front of them. Unfortunately, the other teams didn’t cooperate.
Chicago Express 4, Cincinnati Cyclones 1
Both teams entered Wednesday evening tied for the eighth and final spot and needed a win in the worst way. With a fairly large weekday crowd in the Sears Centre, the Express put on a show for their home fans. The game started out comically enough just 3:50 into the game, as Cincy D-man Maury Edwards fired the puck past his own goalie, Brian Foster, attempting to clear the puck from a pressuring Kyle Ostrow. Taylor Ellington was credited for the easiest goal of his career having been the last Chicago player to touch the puck. At 7:29 Max Gratchev scored to give the Express a 2-0 lead, and Devin DiDiomete added a goal just 1:38 later to give the Express a commanding 3-0 lead after twenty minutes. The Cyclones outshot the Express in the first, 11-9.
The second period brought the chippiness that these two rivals are accustomed to, with six minor penalties called in the frame. Neither team was able to take advantage, but the Cyclones’ Anthony Luciani put a wrap around past Rob Madore with 23 seconds left in the period, at even strength. At 4:10 of the third, defenseman Steven Delisle scored his first professional goal off a beautiful drop pass from DiDiomete (his third point of the night – wut?), to give the Express a 4-1 lead. Rob Madore ended up saving 27 of the 28 shots he faced, effectively eliminating Cincinnati from the Kelly Cup Playoffs. How sad. After this victory, the Express moved into a three-way tie for seventh place with Reading and South Carolina. Both teams held the tiebreaker against the Express, meaning Chicago would need to leapfrog both in points in order to make the playoffs.
Chicago Express 4, Kalamazoo Wings 2
The last regular season game at the Sears Centre would bring the North Division champion K-Wings into town on Friday. The Wings outshot the Express 13-9 in the first, but Chicago potted the only goal of the period at 9:30 when Mike Embach poked a puck Riley Gill was attempting to freeze past him. Mr. Gill was not pleased. The first period also featured a hugging match between Devin DiDiomete and Jonathan Harty. Honestly, I’m not sure any punches were actually thrown. Anthony Maiani was awarded a penalty shot at 3:22 of the second, which he promptly put past Gill to give Chicago a 2-0 lead. That was the first penalty shot converted in the Express’ short history. Shortly thereafter, DiDiomete and Harty decided to actually throw punches in their second fight of the evening. Ho-hum. While on the power play, Chaz Johnson scored at 16:50 to give Chicago a three-goal lead and promptly did a dance at centre ice, ticking off everyone from the fine city of Kalamazoo. His dancing skillz earned Chaz two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct. Danick Paquette took a charging minor shortly thereafter, giving K-Zoo a 2-man advantage late in the period. Chicago not only killed off both penalties, but Johnson fed Paquette with a perfect pass as he was coming out of the box and Paquette buried the puck past Gill for a 4-0 lead at the end of two.
The Wings broke Rob Madore‘s shutout at 1:42 of the third, when Darryl Bootland scored while Max Gratchev was serving a double minor for high sticking. Nick Sirota cut the lead in half just 2:04 later, making the amped up home crowd a tad nervous. Fate was on Chicago side though as not one, but two subsequent Wings goals were waved off – one for the net being off the moorings, and the other for being put in with a high stick. Thankfully, there’s no instant replay in the ECHL. The Express hung on by the seat of their pants, after being outshot 17-3 in the final period to get the all important two points. South Carolina won that evening, but Reading lost in OT, leaving the door open for the Express to get in the playoffs with a win the following night.
Cincinnati Cyclones 3, Chicago Express 2 (OT)
The hockey gods are sometimes cruel.
The Express needed two points in the final game to make the Kelly Cup playoffs in their first year of existence. After 71 games, it would come down to this one, against their old friends, the Cyclones. Cincinnati came out strong for the home crowd, but Rob Madore was stronger, stopping a penalty shot by Garrett Wilson at 10:50. Despite being outshot 16-4 in the first by the Cyclones, Mike Embach would score the only goal of the period at 18:02. The barrage of shots continued for Cincinnati in the second, but again it was the Express who struck when Chaz Johnson put a one-timer past Brian Foster at 5:08. The Cyclones finally dented twine at 10:44, when Dan Eves squeaked the puck past the goal line.
Entering the third with a one-goal lead, the Express had to know their destiny was in their own hands – Both South Carolina and Reading had won their earlier games, meaning Chicago would need the full two points for ownership of the eighth and final playoff spot. It is almost fitting though, being the most penalized team in the Eastern Conference, that it is penalties that would ultimately end Chicago’s season. With 2:52 left in regulation, Pierre-Luc Faubert took a hooking penalty. K-Zoo pulled the goaltender and Anthony Luciani put the puck past Madore with 2:11 left to tie the game at two. 2:39 into the overtime, Taylor Ellington was called for holding. On a 4-on-3 advantage, Mathieu Aubin fired the puck past Madore, winning the game for Cincinnati, and ending the season for Chicago. Rob Madore stopped an amazing 49 of 52 shots in the game. He deserved better.
EMO MEL MOMENT
FINAL EXPRESS STATS:
1) Tyler Donati – 61 (in 46 games!)
2) Pierre-Luc Faubert – 44
3) Maxime Gratchev – 42
1) Chaz Johnson – 20
2) Pierre-Luc Faubert – 19
3) Maxime Gratchev – 15
1) Tyler Donati – 47
2) Darcy Campbell – 29
3) Aaron Marvin & Maxime Gratchev – 27
1) Nathan Lutz – +19
2) Devin DiDiomete – +12
3) Kyle Ostrow – +6
1) Devin DiDiomete – 281 (#1 in the ECHL – woo!)
2) Danick Paquette – 209
3) Ryley Grantham – 162
1) Rob Madore – 8-3-1-0, 2.41 GAA, .926 SV%
2) Peter Mannino – 10-8-2-2, 3.15 GAA, .899 SV%
3) Robby Nolan – 6-8-1-0, 2.99 GAA, .896 Sv%
– The Express had a total of 1,506 penalty minutes, 3rd most in the ECHL
– The Express finished the year 7th in the league on the power play (18.6%) but only 16th on the penalty kill (80.2%)
SEE YA NEXT YEAR:
Despite the disappointing ending, I would like to express (no pun intended) the amount of fun I had following this team this season, and the ECHL in general. Although the rosters in the ECHL will change greatly from year to year, I hope to see some familiar faces next season. Hopefully the team will have learned their lesson, and limit the number of penalties taken next year – there is a lot of talent here, but spending so much time on the PK can be detrimental, as Chicago found out in that last heartbreaking game. Oh, and I hope no one noticed how great Rob Madore was for us at the end of the season, as I will cry real tears if I don’t see his yellow pads in the Sears Centre come October.
Oh in case you think you have gotten rid of me, I will be popping in on Tuesdays for Kelly Cup Playoffs updates. Do I have any predictions? No, not really. I just hope an Eastern Conference team wins as I think the Western Conference is bogus.