Quad-City Mallards head coach Phil Axtell hasn't yet determined which goaltender will be in net for Friday's playoff opener against the Fort Wayne Komets.
The choice is a difficult one.
Both C.J. Motte and Adam Vay have won 20 games this year, the only tandem in the ECHL to do so. While Motte's numbers are better — 2.68 goals against average and .917 save percentage compared to Vay's 3.03 and .900 — Vay was a large part of the Mallards' late-season success, posting three shutouts in the last two months and carrying the team at times with Motte in the AHL.
"That’s huge. Twenty wins, with a coaching change, (defenseman Mike) Monfredo gone, that’s huge. Now we just have to get the young bucks focused," Axtell said. "I think it’s good. It means if something happens, everybody knows that either of them can win."
Motte does have the better resume, an All-Star selection this year, but Vay has really progressed in the second half of the season, putting together a seven-game winning streak at one point and lowering his goals against by 29 points and raising his save percentage 18 points.
"When I came here, it was really tough to play because the ice is smaller and the play is faster and the guys who play in this league, they’re very good," Vay said. "When I started I feel like I have to practice a lot to grow up for these guys. Now, I feel like I’ve grown up."
Axtell's choice for Game 1 might come down to who has the better resume against Fort Wayne, which gives the advantage heavily to Motte. The second-year player was 3-3-0 with a 2.94 goals against average against the Komets, while Vay was 1-5-0 with a 5.25 goals against average, though he played them just once since Axtell took over as coach on Jan. 20.
But Vay has shown big game ability, especially last May, when he was the goaltender for the Hungarian team in the IIHF World Championships. It was that performance that earned him a contract with the Minnesota Wild, and there's the possibility that he can tap into that experience to help him in the postseason.
"We can all learn from anything if we approach it the right way. He definitely progressed as a player, as a professional," Axtell said. "It’s been awesome. He still has a lot, we all have a long ways to go but to see a lot of guys progress but with him, it’s pretty fun. That’s why we’re all here."
Axtell also doesn't know if he'll employ a 'win and you're in' mentality or stay with the rotation the Mallards utilized when both players were on the roster. Whatever he ends up doing, both players will be ready.
"You just take all the experience from the regular season and roll with that in the playoffs," Motte said. "I’ve still got to play my game, do what I do and same with the team. We got here for a reason because we’ve been doing pretty good with our gameplan and we have to stick with that."
The Komets boast a potent tandem of their own. Pat Nagle has gone 15-3-4 with a 2.23 goals against average and a .916 save percentage despite missing three months of the season due to injury.
Though it took the Komets some time to find their way without Nagle, his absence opened the door for Garrett Bartus. He began the season in the SPHL with the Macon Mayhem before joining the Komets and going 21-7-1 with a 2.68 goals against average and a .905 save percentage.
"No matter who we go with and who they go with, I think goaltending has been a big part of this series, the entire year," Fort Wayne coach Gary Graham said. "We know how much of a challenge it's going to be with C.J. in net or, Adam's been very capable this year of playing some very good hockey too."
Though both goalies are strong choices, the team knows it won't matter much if they don't clean up some play in front of the net. In the last two games, the Mallards allowed 84 total shots, many coming early in each game.
"If we don’t play good D-zone, it’s not going to look good for us," Grant Arnold said. "Our D-zone is huge in this series, I think it’s the X-factor. We’re going to score goals, we have the talent to score goals and I think it’s going to come down to our D-zone and our commitment to playing D-zone."
Motte said the early workloads haven't phased him but the Mallards know letting Fort Wayne jump on them early would be a mistake.
"We can’t let our goalies make 10 saves before we wake up," defenseman Mike Wilson said. "We’ve talked about it as a team and we know we have to be better."
Players of the week: Toledo Walleye forward Dane Walters was named the Sher-Wood Hockey player of the week after scoring six goals — five in one game — and adding two assists with a plus-nine rating in three games last week.
Reading Royals goaltender Mark Dekanich was named the CCM goaltender of the week for the second time in his career. Dekanich went 3-0-0 with a 2.97 goals against average and a .927 save percentage in three games last week.
Watson named coach of the year: Toledo Walleye head coach Dan Watson was named the recipient of the John Brophy Award Tuesday as the league's coach of the year. Watson led the Walleye to a 51-17-4 record for 106 points and the club's second Brabham Cup championship in three seasons for finishing the regular season with the league's best record.