By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
There’s no doubt the Florida Everblades have taken their share of gripes about being the team that wins in the regular season, but can’t finish in the postseason.
A team such as the Buffalo Bills of the early ’90s comes to mind when looking at the Blades’ playoff statistics in their nine-year history. Florida has made the playoffs each of those nine years — and won the Brabham Cup as the regular-season points leader in one of them — and has advanced to the Kelly Cup Finals twice, losing both times.
Not too shabby.
But for this team and its fans, something is missing. The Blades can probably relate to how John Elway must have felt in three failed Super Bowl attempts and a successful career, before winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and ’98.
Nothing like a championship to really validate a player, or a franchise.
Now, the Blades find themselves again struggling to shed their image as regular season wonder, postseason flop. Florida trails the Dayton Bombers 3-2 in the American Conference Finals best-of-seven series, just one step away from the Kelly Cup Finals.
A could-be decisive Game 6 is Thursday night at 7:30 at Germain Arena, the site of nine past decisive playoff games for the Blades. If they win, and then win again at Germain Arena on Friday night at 7:30, the Blades would advance to play Idaho in the Kelly Cup Finals. Idaho beat Alaska four games to one in the National Conference Finals.
“Nobody wants to have that image,” forward Dustin Johner (pictured) said of the Blades’ reputation as a great regular season team that can’t win the championship. “We want to show that we can put it all together these last two games and go on to win a Kelly Cup.”
Of course, the Blades would have to shake off a substantial amount of history to come back and win this series, starting with a win Thursday night. Florida is 4-5 in decisive playoff games at Germain Arena, with two wins coming in 2004, when the Blades beat Roanoke in the quarterfinals with a 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 4, and went on to beat Reading 3-2 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The other two wins came this season, a 4-0 Game 3 victory against Charlotte in the South Division semifinals and a memorable 4-3 overtime victory against Texas in the South Division Finals that ranks with the Reading win as one of the top Blades games of all time.
The Blades suffered season-ending playoff losses at Germain Arena in 2000, ’01, ’03, ’05 and ’06. Of course, as coach Gerry Fleming is quick to remember, those were quite different teams, with the exception of the ’06 squad. In minor league hockey, where transience is a given, it’s tough to base much on a team’s past performance.
Looking at this season’s playoff results, it seems the Blades could be turning things around when it comes to getting it done on their home ice. And surely, Germain Arena is one of the top arenas in the ECHL, and the Blades typically finish in the top three spots for average attendance, plus the venue was built for hockey. Florida doesn’t encounter the ice problems Dayton has at its Nutter Center, which Fleming called “the worst venue for hockey that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
That ice may be partially, but not completely, to blame for the Blades’ 1-2 record in Dayton, which puts them on the brink of elimination approaching Thursday night’s game. Other reasons were penalties (especially in Game 5), sluggish starts and an inability to get shots on goal.
“We know what we gotta do to win,” Johner said. “The periods where we haven’t played well and haven’t gotten shots, we haven’t been skating … we need to skate better and we’ve got to be physical, too.”
The Blades seem to know what they’re doing wrong. But they have little time, now, to make amends. Fleming and the players seem un-rattled on the surface, but Fleming has started to tinker with the lineup, switching veteran Brent McDonald to a healthy scratch and inserting Jonathan Lehun for Tuesday’s game. Fleming said to expect more lineup changes in Thursday’s game, starting with the reinsertion of McDonald, but also Lehun’s continued presence on the ice.
Whatever the lineup, whatever the particular problems Dayton presents in Thursday’s Game 6, the Blades have proved — as they have in the past — that talent-wise they are the cream of the ECHL. Whether that translates to another Kelly Cup Finals trip, and a chance to hearken Elway and the Denver Broncos of ’97 … well, that remains to be seen.