By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
READING, Pa. — The first three rounds of the ECHL’s Conference Playoffs proved the old idiom that familiarity breeds contempt. The past six weeks have seen plenty of testy moments as rivalries that have been formed or furthered during the regular season came to a head when it was time to play for the Kelly Cup.
So what, then, were the Reading Royals and Stockton Thunder expected to…well, breed once the Finals rolled around? If Saturday night’s wild Game 1 is any indication, unpredictability and excitement are just a few superlatives that would fit the bill.
Not only had the Royals and Thunder not played each other this season, their last meetings date all the way back to 2005, when Stockton hosted the last of a three-game visit by Reading. Suffice it to say, there’s little that can be gained now from those games, so when it came time to putting together a game plan, the Royals were looking for something a little more current.
"We did a little bit of video all week long," said Royals captain Yannick Tifu, who had a goal and two assists in Reading’s 6-5 overtime win.
"But we wanted to play our game. That’s what brought us here, playing our game. I know it’s hard that we didn’t see Stockton, but we kind of knew what kind of team they are. And they showed up tonight and came back two, three, four times…we knew they were that kind of team. I remember seeing a game on (America One) when they were down 4-1 against Alaska, and they won 5-4 in the third period. I knew they were a resilient team and they battled through, and that’s why they’re here. They’re a hell of a team."
Added Reading forward T.J. Syner: "We were talking about that today, it’s pretty tough, you don’t know what to expect. I think both teams were a little standoffish at first; you don’t want to make a mistake by being too jumpy. But I thought they were a good team and they played really hard, they battled right until the end. If we play our game plan and stick with our system, we’ll be fine."
While this is the first pro playoff experience that Syner, a first-year pro, has gotten under his belt, Royals blueliner Patrick Wellar is chasing his third Kelly Cup (’06 Alaska, ’09 South Carolina). Clearly, this isn’t the first time he’s been unfamiliar with his opponent when it matters the most. But, as Tifu said, it’s all about just sticking to your game.
"Basically, you just have to fine-tune your own game," offered Wellar. "You have to make sure that you’re playing smart hockey, and you have to jump right into the game. You can’t try to feel it out, you have to take the pace to them and I thought we had a great start tonight. Getting the first goal was huge, and then we let the game slip a couple times tonight. That’s a tribute to their character over there."
After a tightly-played first 40 minutes of play, the third period featured a barrage of Grade-A chances that led to Kelly Cup Finals record-tying six goals scored, with four coming in the final 5:10. Although Wellar mentioned there wasn’t a feeling out process for the players, Royals head coach Larry Courville studied hours of game film himself, and says that Saturday night served as "an evaluation for the matchups we wanted."
"Even thought we hadn’t seen them all year, we knew several of their players, we knew their style of game, we knew their system," he said. "It’s not hard to see video team on teams you don’t see out west. Tonight was more if we have to make changes tomorrow, we’ll evaluate the video and we have some guys that could play that are not playing right now that could possibly help us."
But, given what time of year it is, Courville was also quick to not give away any secrets to the opposition.
"Or," he quickly noted, "we could go back to the same lineup."
Surely, any of the 5,493 fans in attendance — regardless of their rooting interests — wouldn’t mind a little more of the same from Game 1. It took nearly 70 minutes of hockey to figure it out, but well…familiarity might not be a bad thing after all.