By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – The Charlotte Checkers entered Game 1 of the ECHL American Conference Finals riding the hottest goalie in the playoffs.
That’s not how they ended it.
The Florida Everblades beat Checkers netminder Alex Westlund five times, four in the second period alone, on their way to a 6-4 victory in front of 5,555 fans at Germain Arena. The teams will play Game 2 back in Estero at 7:30 Wednesday night.
Westlund had not allowed more than four goals in any of his previous nine playoff appearances, he had won six of his last seven starts and came into the game with a 102-minute, 50-second scoreless streak. He surrendered five goals on 36 shots before being pulled at the start of the third period.
The Blades’ Ernie Hartlieb (pictured) ended that string with the first of his two goals at 9:41 of the first period to tie the game at 1.
“When you get one goal like that, it’s like, ‘All right, we can score on ’em, we can score on ’em,’ ” Hartlieb said. “Then it just showed in the second period, we exploded with goals. We were around the net crashing the net. We were animals in front of that net and that’s what it’s going to take to beat Westlund.
“We want to put that puck in the net. We’re not just gonna throw it at the net, we want to score. We have that mind-set that we want to bury it.”
Florida’s Reggie Berg, Matt Pagnutti, Ryan Brindley and Brad Church all scored in the second period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead and give their team a 1-0 edge in the best-of-7 series.
One game does not a series win and coming back is nothing new to the Checkers. Charlotte trailed two games to none in the conference quarterfinals to Columbia before winning three consecutive contests and lost its first to Gwinnett in the semifinals before winning the next three to win those series.
“It’s getting to be a trend,” Charlotte coach Derek Wilkinson said. “Three times, I guess, is a trend. Losing Game 1s, ideally, isn’t what we want. We’ve gotten back into series before, so we’ll concentrate on coming out hard Wednesday.”
Charlotte’s prospects looked good early in the second period when Kenton Smith scored at 1:59 to give his team a 2-1 lead. That turned out to be short-lived.
The rest of the period belonged to the Blades, as they scored their four goals and outshot Charlotte 18-4 over the final 18 minutes to take a commanding, 5-2 edge into the third period.
Berg tied the game at 2 at 6:15 when he collected the rebound of a long Brindley shot and flipped it in. Pagnutti scored next, on a slap shot from the left point, for a 3-2 lead at 10:59.
Florida then blitzed the Checkers for two goals in 20 seconds late in the frame. David Lundbohm fed Brindley with a pass in the slot and he didn’t miss, as Brindley’s shot found the inside of the right post at 15:52 for a power-play goal. Church then knocked home the rebound of a Berg shot at 16:12 to wrap up the period’s scoring.
“In defense of Westlund, the goals that we scored were pretty good goals,” Florida coach Gerry Fleming said. “They weren’t bad goals. He made some big saves early on too. I think (Wilkinson) might have pulled him to just spark his team up, to give him a break, and it worked, they scored some goals.”
Westlund was replaced by Kelly Guard to start the third period. Guard last played April 5 in a 3-2 loss at Gwinnett. Hartlieb welcomed him by scoring Florida’s sixth goal, at 2:21 of the final frame, to make it 6-2.
“In the beginning, we were like, ‘Westlund is a hot goaltender, he’s going to be in all series. You know we’re not going to see Guard,’ and the next thing you know, he’s in the net,” Hartlieb said. “It’s good we got one on him quick too.”
Charlotte made things interesting when Dwight Helminen scored a power-play goal at 10:25 and Ryan Lang added another at 15:31 to pull the Checkers to within two, but they would get no closer.
Charlotte came out with a few strong minutes early in the first period and notched a goal four minutes into the game. Craig Kowalski kicked out a Helminen shot, but the rebound went right to Lee Falardeau, who scored the first goal of the series.
Florida turned up the heat soon after and was rewarded with the tying goal as a Hartlieb shot from the right circle found its way through a gaggle of bodies in front and past Westlund at 9:41.
The Blades dominated play over the second half of the period, allowing the Checkers only two shots and finishing the period with an 18-8 shot advantage, but the score remained tied.