ECHL hockey: Florida Everblades facing Eastern Conference Finals rematch with Newfoundland

·6 min read

The Florida Everblades will have to exorcise a playoff demon to make the Kelly Cup Finals.

In 2019, the Newfoundland Growlers beat the Blades, 4-1, in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Friday night, the two teams are back at it in the same round, with a chance at facing Utah or Toledo for the ECHL's ultimate prize. Game 2 is also in Newfoundland, which has the home advantage because it had a higher winning percentage.

Games 3, 4 and 5 are at Hertz Arena on Wednesday, May 25, Friday, May 27 and Saturday, May 28.

Florida Everblades help their goalie Callum Booth defend the net against an attack by the Newfoundland Growlers during Game 1 of the ECHL Eastern Conference Finals, Friday, May 10, 2019, at Hertz Arena in Estero.
Florida Everblades help their goalie Callum Booth defend the net against an attack by the Newfoundland Growlers during Game 1 of the ECHL Eastern Conference Finals, Friday, May 10, 2019, at Hertz Arena in Estero.

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"They're a very good team," Everblades general manager Craig Brush said. "They showed it (Monday) night. They showed it by being able to come back from a 3-1 deficit. They were clearly the best team (Monday) night."

The Growlers have played the maximum of 14 games in the playoffs so far. Florida hasn't played since completing a sweep of Jacksonville on May 11.

"It's a factor if we take advantage of it," Blades coach Brad Ralph said of the rest. "They played two difficult series here and we're coming off a number of days of rest here. It's up to us to be prepared for Game 1 and to make sure that we come out with our best effort."

"I'd probably rather be playing (sooner) but it's kind of nice to almost take your foot off the gas a little bit and turn your brain off for a couple of days," said Blades goalie Cam Johnson, who had three shutouts against the Icemen. "That's what we've been working on this week. They're coming off a Game 7, and we've kind of been sitting around for a week."

In 2019, the Blades had home-ice advantage, but Newfoundland pulled out Game 1, 2-0, then took Game 2 in a rout, 5-1, at Hertz Arena. Florida won Game 3 in Newfoundland, 5-4, then dropped the next two there, getting outscored a combined 9-0. The Growlers then beat Toledo, 4-2, to win the Kelly Cup.

"We're trying to block that out of our mind," Brush said of the 2019 matchup. "They had an incredible team that year. We couldn't keep up with the pace that they set."

The Blades and Growlers have played once since, a 3-0 home victory by Florida late in the 2019-20 season.  That season ended early and the playoffs were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Newfoundland also did not play the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic. But there are still similarities from 2019 as to what the Blades will face.

"It is a very similar style of play," Ralph said. "I think that's a little more comforting and confident leading into this series that we know what we're getting into. We've done the travel before, a number of us. There's a lot less uncertainty. That does breed confidence."

Florida forwards John McCarron, Blake Winiecki, Nathan Perkovich and Michael Neville, and defenseman Ben Masella all played against the Growlers in that series. Current Blade Stefan Leblanc played for the Growlers that year.

Florida Everblades forward John McCarron (25), left, checks Jacksonville Icemen forward Craig Martin (29) into the boards during an ECHL hockey game at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.  [Gary Lloyd McCullough/For the Jacksonville Icemen]
Florida Everblades forward John McCarron (25), left, checks Jacksonville Icemen forward Craig Martin (29) into the boards during an ECHL hockey game at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. [Gary Lloyd McCullough/For the Jacksonville Icemen]

"Those guys bring it every night," said Florida defenseman Zach Solow, a Naples native of those veterans like McCarron and Winiecki, two of the top scorers in the league. "They're the hardest guys to play against in the league. As long as we've got them we'll be just fine."

"We certainly do have an experienced team and we have a motivated team, too," Brush said. "Some of these guys, this opportunity may not come again so I know they want to the best of it."

Ralph likes where his roster is at and how the Everblades have been playing. Florida beat Greenville, 4-2, in the divisional semifinals before the sweep of Jacksonville.

Johnson's performance has been stellar, particularly in the series against the Icemen when he allowed three goals in four games.

"The way he plays, he's a calming factor for us," Ralph said. "Our team is very confident in front of him. (The Growlers are) very skilled offensively and we're going to need our goalie to step up big.

"I think as a group we've got to help him out, but no doubt I think every playoff series your goalie has to come up big for you, and this one is not going to be any different."

"This guy's dialed in," Solow said. "He's a machine and we're going to ride him."

Jacksonville Icemen forward James Sanchez (12) is successfully defended by Florida Everblades goaltender Cam Johnson (33) during an ECHL playoff hockey game at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.  [Gary Lloyd McCullough/For the Jacksonville Icemen]
Jacksonville Icemen forward James Sanchez (12) is successfully defended by Florida Everblades goaltender Cam Johnson (33) during an ECHL playoff hockey game at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Tuesday, May 10, 2022. [Gary Lloyd McCullough/For the Jacksonville Icemen]

Johnson, who has played parts of the last three seasons in Florida, is excited about the opportunity.

"I kind of pride myself on being a playoff goalie," he said. "They're big games and your big players have got to show up in your big games. It's something that I understand. It's something I've always enjoyed playing.

"Pressure makes diamonds. They're big games. They're pressure games. That's when you've got to stand up."

The Everblades franchise is known for standing tall -- although not the tallest -- in the playoffs. Removing the canceled 2019-20 playoffs, this is the third time in four years that Florida has been in the Eastern Conference Finals. But the Blades haven't won a Kelly Cup since their lone one in 2012.

"Winning's hard," Ralph said. "It's really hard. It's hard mentally, emotionally. It's hard physically on the players. I am really proud of this team, and this organization for the success that we've had.

"The goal is to win the Kelly Cup and we haven't done that yet. It is hard. It is exhausting, but a challenge and a high that you don't get in anything else."

2022 Kelly Cup Playoffs

Eastern Conference Finals

Florida Everblades vs. Newfoundland Growlers

Friday, May 20: Florida at Newfoundland, 5:30 p.m.

Sunday, May 22: Florida at Newfoundland, 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday, May 25: Newfoundland at Florida, 7:30 p.m.

Friday, May 27: Newfoundland at Florida, 7:30 p.m.

x-Saturday, May 28: Newfoundland at Florida, 7 p.m.

x-Tuesday, May 31: Florida at Newfoundland, 5:30 p.m.

x-Wednesday, June 1, Florida at Newfoundland, 5:30 p.m.

x — if necessary

Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at ghardwig@naplesnews.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Florida Everblades facing conference finals rematch with Newfoundland