By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. — At the beginning of the 2003-04 ECHL season, 31 teams had their sights set on winning the Kelly Cup that goes to the league champion.
Now just two remain — the Florida Everblades and the Idaho Steelheads.
Only one team can skate away with the trophy named in honor of the league’s first commissioner, Patrick J. Kelly, and the decisive series begins tonight at TECO Arena in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Kelly Cup Finals.
Florida and Idaho took similar paths to reach this point, both finishing third in their respective divisions and both having to claw and fight in the final weeks of the regular season just to qualify for the playoffs.
Once into the postseason, however, a little luck of the draw, coupled with solid play on the ice, led both teams to this point.
“We’re 18 days or less from the season being over, for both teams, so we’ve come this far and we’re going to do our best to bring it home,” Everblades head coach Gerry Fleming said. “We know their personnel and I’m sure they know our personnel and they know how we’re going to play and we know how they’re going to play. Now it’s just a matter of going out and playing.”
Idaho finished with a better record (40-23-9) than Florida (37-25-10), which resulted in the Steelheads getting home-ice advantage for the series. It the series goes the distance, Games 3, 4, 5 and 7 will be played at the Bank of America Centre in Boise, with Games 1, 2 and 6 in Estero because of a scheduling conflict at TECO with high school graduations next week.
Normally, the team with the better record gets to open at home, but this means the Everblades will host the first two games for the third straight series.
“I love to get this series started off at home,” said Everblades goalie Rob Zepp, who is 8-1 in the playoffs with a 2.16 goals-against-average. “The crowd’s unbelievable. To have that to open up a series I think is great. I’m looking forward to it.”
Large crowds that also were very loud played a key role in Florida getting this far as the team compiled a 6-1 home record in the first three rounds. That’s where the luck of the draw came in for the Blades.
South Carolina knocked off top-seeded Columbia in the first round, and as the No. 4 seed had to come to Estero after the Everblades eliminated No. 2 Roanoke in four games. The Blades swept the Stingrays, and then were given home ice over the Reading Royals in the Eastern Conference Finals by virtue of a better division record — the fifth tiebreaker since the teams had identical records.
Once again, the hockey gods were smiling on Florida as it took the first two games at home, lost the next two badly in Reading by a combined score of 10-1, and then closed out the series this past Monday night in Game 5 with a 3-2 victory.
“I’m a big believer in looking at the positive side of things,” veteran defenseman Ryan Brindley said. “And having two games at home just coming off a huge win in our rink, and just the energy and the fan support that we’re going to have immediately Friday and Saturday definitely can work to our advantage.”
Brindley is the only member of the Everblades to know what it feels like to hoist the Kelly Cup and then see his name engraved on it. He won a championship with South Carolina in 2001 and has been drawing on that experience throughout the playoffs.
He also is one of just two men in the dressing room to have faced the Steelheads this season, forward John McNabb being the other. McNabb began the season in Long Beach with the IceDogs and played Idaho six times, so he has become the go-to guy for information.
“It’s going to be a tough series, it’s going to be a lot like last series (against Reading),” said McNabb, who has 12 points (6 goals, 6 assists) in the playoffs. “It’ll be a little bit faster and I’m looking forward to the challenge. They’ve got good forwards, the atmosphere in their building is going to be just like ours. It’s going to be electric.”
McNabb played with Steelheads Dan Vandermeer and Idaho defenseman Darrell Hay played for the Everblades in 2000-01, and a handful of other Steelheads played against the Florida in the past, including Lance Galbraith.
As in any playoff series, goaltenders likely will take center stage. Idaho’s Dan Ellis leads the ECHL in postseason wins with nine, and Zepp is right behind with eight. Ellis’ 1.82 GAA is third best and he, like Zepp, had some playing time in the American Hockey League.
“Both of our goalies have played well all season (Jeff Maund being the other),” Fleming said. “But Rob really has stepped it up in the playoffs and kept us in games.”
Idaho has three players in double digits in scoring so far this postseason, and likes to play physical up front with opposing forwards. Florida’s top line of McNabb, Reggie Berg and Tom Buckley will try to exploit the Steelheads zone with fast, crisp passing and speed on the rush into the zone.
Fleming didn’t get his hands on game tape of Idaho until late, but he had spoken with a couple of head coaches from the west — Alaska’s Davis Payne and Gwinnett’s Jeff Pyle — to get a little bit of insight. Pyle, whose Gladiators lost to the Steelheads in the Western Conference Finals, 3-1, sent Fleming the tape.
“We couldn’t get tape in time and I didn’t want to call before the Reading series. I just couldn’t, because you can’t look beyond who you’re playing,” Fleming said. “At this stage, any team that has made it this far is going to be good in all facets, and all we can do is worry about playing our game.”
Veteran forward Tom Buckley won a Memorial Cup in the Western Hockey League back in 1995-96 with the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, and has felt the disappointment of early playoff exits with the Everblades each of the previous four seasons.
He came out of retirement in February just to make another run and instead of just being along for the ride, he has driven the bus, leading the league in playoff scoring with 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists). The 27-year-old former team captain wants to reach the ultimate destination first.
“All we’ve gotten is the opportunity to prove we may be the best team in the league, and so has Idaho,” Buckley said. “And they’ve gone on the same run we have. You can’t slight anybody anything right now, they’re obviously a great hockey club and it’s going to be a battle.
“Now we see what playoff hockey is about, a seven-game series, you’ve got to win four of seven, so it will be a battle to the end now,” he added. “We need to bottle how we played Monday night (in Game 5 against Reading) and if it doesn’t work out, we know we gave it our all.”