By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Thirteen hours after their four hour-long 4-3 overtime loss to the Dayton Bombers on Tuesday night at Germain Arena, the Florida Everblades gathered in their locker room for an important team meeting.
It wasn’t a long meeting — after all, there wasn’t a whole lot to be said — but after it the team seemed refocused and ready to come out strong on Thursday night, when Florida and Dayton will play Game 2 of the American Conference Finals at 7:30 at Germain Arena.
The Blades will have some history to overcome in trying to win this series. In their nine-straight playoff appearances, they have never won a series after losing Game 1.
Clearly, Tuesday’s loss took a toll on the Blades, who came back from a 3-0 deficit only to lose in the third overtime despite outshooting the Bombers 25-10 during the overtime periods in the longest game in franchise history. After Wednesday’s meeting, no one was ready to put back on the gear and skates, but nobody seemed quite ready to leave the locker room yet either. A few players hung around on the exercise bikes, while Craig Kowalski and Steve Czech played ping pong, and Vince Bellissimo headed over to the weights.
“We’re still a little tired,” Kowalski said during a break in the ping-pong action. “That was definitely the longest game I’ve ever played in my life.”
Kowalski played the entire 101 minutes and 23 seconds on Tuesday, collecting 43 saves on 47 shots. He tried to ease his soreness Tuesday night with a late meal and some TV before finally falling asleep around 2:15 a.m.
Then he woke up late Wednesday morning, showered, and not surprisingly, headed right back to the rink. Rather than making the Blades sick of hockey, Tuesday night’s marathon loss seems to have only fueled their desire to be together, at the arena — and keep the hockey season going.
They’ll approach Thursday’s game knowing a lot more about a Dayton team they faced just once during the regular season, a 4-2 loss on Nov. 4 that Kowalski did not play in.
On Tuesday night, Florida again saw just how good Dayton goalie Adam Berkhoel is, as he frustrated the Blades with 59 total saves. Berkhoel was the goalie who stopped the Blades’ playoff run last season — he played in goal for Gwinnett, which beat the Blades in the South Division Finals playoff series.
The Bombers may have surprised the Blades with their offensive ability and talented skaters, especially in the second period, when Dayton outshot Florida 19-9 and scored three goals. After the game on Tuesday, both Dustin Johner and Ernie Hartlieb said they may have underestimated the Bombers.
Of course, after suffering the OT loss and lengthy game, it seems unlikely the Blades will be taking Dayton lightly during the rest of the series.
One Blades player who really suffered the effects of Tuesday night’s lengthy game was Bellissimo. He was the heart of the Blades’ offense during the end of regulation and the first overtime, after scoring with two minutes left in the third period to tie the score at 3-3. It was Bellissimo’s eighth playoff goal, and coach Gerry Fleming seemed to count on him increasingly throughout the third regulation period and first two overtime periods, leaving Bellissimo’s line in for a few double shifts.
Maybe it was the double shifts, maybe it was a lack of hydration — but Tuesday night Bellissimo said he felt pain he’d never felt before. His legs started cramping in the beginning of the second overtime, he said, and with six minutes left in the second overtime, he couldn’t stand it anymore.
He skated off the ice to trainer Todd Wisocki, who quickly hooked Bellissimo up to a couple IV bags.
“That has never happened before,” said Bellissimo, who was frustrated about missing the final six minutes of the game. “Just as I was getting ready to go back in, they scored.”
Bellissimo’s frustration is just a small part of the frustrations for all the Blades players and coaches, who were also taken aback by the boarding penalty on Johner that led to the power-play goal for Dayton at the beginning of the third overtime.
But on Wednesday, as the players smiled and joked quietly on the exercise bikes, it seemed the morning sun had brought with it another chance — well, best-of-seven chance that is — for the Blades to come out again against Dayton, this time without underestimating the Bombers’ abilities.
“We just need to play a full game (on Thursday),” Kowalski said. “We played a great third period (Tuesday) night, but we came out too slow at the beginning.”