By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Almost a year ago to the date, Adam Berkhoel (pictured) played a significant role in handing the Florida Everblades a crushing home defeat that led to months of offseason heartache.
Berkhoel ended the Blades’ 2005-06 season by making 27 saves in a series-clinching, Game 4 victory for the Gwinnett Gladiators in the ECHL South Finals.
Wearing a different jersey and playing the best hockey of his career, Berkhoel is back at Germain Arena.
Florida must find a way to cool off the first-year Dayton Bombers’ goalie in the best-of-7 American Conference Finals, which will start Tuesday at Germain. Berkhoel is the reigning ECHL Goaltender of the Year and was the Most Valuable Player at the 2007 All-Star Game.
Blades coach Gerry Fleming said Berkhoel is a better goalie than the netminder his team just finished playing: Texas goalie Matt Yeats, who went 32-19-7, with a 2.96 goals-against average, in the regular season.
“(Berkhoel) is a little more squared to the puck (than Yeats),” Fleming said. “I think his rebound control is better and he’s in a zone right now. He’s a big reason why (Dayton) has advanced this far.”
Berkhoel is 7-3, with 2.22 goals-against average and a 0.925 save percentage, in the postseason. His three shutouts are the most in the playoffs.
Several of the Blades were actually teammates with Berkhoel earlier this season. A Buffalo Sabres’ prospect, Berkhoel was promoted to the Rochester Americans, who are one of Florida’s American Hockey League affiliates. Blades forwards Jon Lehun, Adam Taylor and David Brine, and defensemen Franklin MacDonald were with Rochester at the time.
“If you look at some of the stuff he’s done this year it’s amazing,” Taylor said. “When a goalie like that is hot, you just try to get traffic to the net and keep shooting pucks on him.”
Berkhoel, who is seeking his first ECHL title, is used to winning, as he helped capture national championships in juniors (Twin City Vulcans, 2000) and in the NCAA (Denver, 2004).
Berkhoel will share the ice tonight with another hot goalie. Florida’s Craig Kowalski is 7-2, with a 2.02 goals-against average, in the postseason. Berkhoel said he practiced with Kowalski two summers ago.
“He’s a great goalie,” Berkhoel said. “He’s gotten them where they are now. I’m just looking forward to the match-up.”
Florida has played Dayton just once in franchise history and it happened earlier this season. The Bombers beat the Blades 4-2 on Nov. 4 in Ohio.
Dayton will enter tonight’s game with a lot of confidence. The Bombers became just the third team in the 19-year history of the ECHL to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit to win a series. Dayton completed the comeback Thursday when it beat Cincinnati 5-3 in Game 7 of the North Division Finals.
In addition to the home-ice advantage, the Blades will have the edge in another category: playoff experience. Florida is playing in the American Conference Finals for the third time in four years. Dayton, meanwhile, is in the midst of just its second playoff appearance since 2001.