By Andy Kent
Copyright 2005, Naples Daily News
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s on to the Kelly Cup Finals again for the Florida Everblades.
After hitting just about every piece of iron surrounding the opposing net, Damian Surma (pictured) scored 30 seconds into overtime Friday night to give the Everblades a 1-0 victory over the Charlotte Checkers and clinch the American Conference Finals series in six games. It’s the second year in a row they have advanced to the best-of-seven league championship series.
Florida will face the winner of the National Conference Finals series between the Alaska Aces and Trenton Titans, whose series is tied 3-3 with Game 7 on Monday at 11:15 p.m. ET at Anchorage.
The Everblades will have home ice if Trenton wins and plan to start the series with Games 1 and 2 next Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22. If Alaska wins, the Aces will have home ice and plan to start next Wednesday, May 18, in Anchorage.
Tickets for the first two home games will go on sale at the Germain Arena box office Saturday morning at 10. Fans can also call Ticketmaster at 334-3309.
Veteran forward Brad Church got the assist when his slapshot from the top of the left circle was kicked back to Surma by Checkers goalie Alex Westlund for the one-timer.
Surma’s wrister from the middle of the left circle beat Westlund high over his left shoulder and stuck in the back of the net. It was the only one of 40 shots Westlund let by.
“I think that’s the most posts I hit all year,” said Surma, who looked like he had two or three goals in the first two periods. “I was getting real frustrated. Every time I came back to the bench (head coach) Gerry (Fleming) and Reggie (Berg) and Churchie told me not to worry, it will come, and I was like, when? But I’m glad it came when it came.”
That set off the celebration, which was followed by the presentation of the E.A. “Bud” Gingher Memorial Trophy by former ECHL commissioner Patrick Kelly, whom the Kelly Cup is named after.
Everblades goaltender Tyler MacKay recorded his second straight shutout of the playoffs by stopping all 22 shots he faced, including a crucial cover-up with 30 seconds left in regulation and the teams playing 4-on-4 hockey.
Referee Joe Ernst allowed the outcome to be decided on the ice, keeping his whistle in his pocket virtually the entire game. Each team had one power play opportunity in the second period, and he called matching minors with 34 seconds left in regulation.
“Tonight was a good hockey game, both teams played well,” Fleming said. “They threw everything that they had and it was just a good game. It was an entertaining hockey game, it was back and forth, they had some chances, and we had some chances. It’s just nice to get the win.”
In four overtime games this postseason, the Everblades are a perfect 4-0 and have ended each one less than two minutes into the extra period.
Florida dominated play in the opening stanza, outshooting Charlotte 13-5. Surma hit two posts and two crossbars himself and a handful of passes by the Everblades forwards were inches off the mark. Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief when the period ended in a scoreless tie.
The Checkers reversed the pattern in the second period, outshooting the Everblades 13-8, but MacKay and the Everblades defensemen kept the quality chances to a minimum. Charlotte didn’t get its first power play until the 18:39 mark.
“I thought every game this series was going to be like that,” said MacKay, who has stepped up his play considerably since being reinserted as the starting goalie in Game 3 last week in Charlotte. “I know how (Westlund) plays and he’s a very strong goaltender and he’ll battle through everything. My defensemen did a great job again in front of me, they only had five shots in the first period and I saw four of the five, so I can’t say enough but about our D-men. They’re playing unbelievable right now.”
In the third period it was all Everblades again as they launched 17 shots on net to just four for Charlotte, but Westlund played like the man who single-handedly shut down the Gwinnett Gladiators in the conference semifinals.
For Church, the emotions of the moment overcame him like a wave in the dressing room. This is the first time in his professional career he has reached the championship round, and last year when he was with the Reading Royals his team lost the decisive Game 5 of the conference finals to the Everblades in Estero.
There’s a photo of him in Florida’s media guide lying on the ice, devastated, as the Everblades celebrate in the background.
“I can’t even tell you right now how I feel. Nine years I’ve been going at this, this is my first finals,” Church said as he choked back tears. “This is awesome … awesome.”
The victory also allowed Everblades team president/general manager Craig Brush to relax a little and not have to worry about his wallet getting lighter. Had Charlotte pulled out the win and forced a Game 7, Brush would have had to buy out the two “Disney On Ice: Finding Nemo” shows scheduled for Sunday afternoon at Germain Arena.
Surma said Brush joked that he was going to give him half the gate from those two shows for scoring the game-winner. Brush couldn’t hold back the smile, proudly boasting that he predicted Surma would get the clincher.
“This is a real close-knit team,” Brush said. “Gerry’s done a great job and it’s a credit to the players on the team too that it’s all for one.”