By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s amazing what happens when two quality hockey teams are given a chance to win a game minus any whistles.
The Florida Everblades recaptured the lead in the ECHL’s best-of-seven American Conference Finals with a hard-fought 2-1 victory Friday night over the Charlotte Checkers in Game 3 at Cricket Arena.
Game 4 is Sunday at 5 p.m. in the same building then the teams return to Southwest Florida for Game 5 next Tuesday.
Through three periods, only one penalty was called, tying an ECHL playoff record for fewest penalty minutes between both teams (Tallahassee and Raleigh in 1996). And both head coaches and players were pleased with the officiating, being that it was the same on both sides.
Reggie Berg (pictured) scored the game-winning goal for the Everblades 9:04 into the second period when he cleaned up the rebound of Damian Surma’s shot to give Florida a 2-0 lead. Ever blades goaltender Tyler MacKay did the rest in direct response to a personal challenge put forth to him by head coach Gerry Fleming before the game.
“That’s a playoff hockey game right there,” said MacKay, who stopped 22 of 23 shots in his first start since Game 2 of the conference semifinals. “I haven’t played well these playoffs and had some meetings there with Gerry where he told me guys were looking to me to play better and stop thinking too much. I just played my game.”
Both teams missed a couple of early chances in the opening minutes as they tried to feel each other out.
Checkers goalie Alex Westlund, who stopped 36 of 38 shots, escaped disaster just about the midway point of the period when he dove back to poke check a loose puck away after he had wandered too far from the crease to keep it a scoreless game.
“Being down in a series is nothing new for us, I wish I could say we were leading but we’ve been here before,” Checkers head coach Derek Wilkinson said. “It wasn’t quite as free flowing as the two games in Florida, obviously with the ability for guys to clutch and grab as much as they did tonight, but we’re not going to change anything.
With 1:36 left in the opening period, the scoreless tie was broken as Florida’s Paul Cabana stuffed in the soft rebound of Tim O’Connell’s shot that had trickled behind Westlund near the right post. Steve Saviano got the second assist as the crowd went silent.
The Everblades came out fast and aggressive to start the second period, outshooting the Checkers 9-4 through the first nine-and-a-half minutes. Their hard work paid off as Berg and Surma teamed up to increase the lead to two goals.
Charlotte’s fans and the Checkers bench didn’t think the goal should have been allowed, but after a brief discussion between referee Nygel Pelletier and his linesman it was.
“Damian actually had a step on the guy for a breakaway and the guy slashed him pretty good,” Berg said. “I knew that if he didn’t score there would be a rebound and he left it for me and I just backhanded it into the net. It definitely was a goal. Damian was sliding and the goalie jumped up to go over him and the puck went in.”
The Checkers answered back 54 seconds later as Bogdan Rudenko wristed in the rebound of Dusty Jamieson’s shot from the slot to cut the deficit in half at 2-1.
Ryan Glenn got the second assist on the goal.
Everblades forward Brad Church had the dubious honor of getting called for the first penalty of the game at the 14:55 mark of the third period when he was whistled for high sticking, giving Charlotte the lone power play of the night.
You wouldn’t have known who had the man advantage as Florida was flawless on the penalty kill, not allowing a single shot and actually getting one off shorthanded by Berg with two seconds left in the penalty.
“Tyler was there when we made some defensive mistakes and had some breakdowns, he was there to make the big saves for us,” Fleming said. “We made some adjustments on the penalty kill, which was important, and the guys responded well. Our defense stepped up and we know they’re going to come at us hard Sunday.”
Fleming said he is sticking with the same lineup for Game 3, meaning forward Brent McDonald will sit out again. He is day-to-day as he tried out a playing cast to protect his fractured left hand and looked good in practice, but Fleming doesn’t see any need to make any changes.