By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
FAIRBORN, Ohio – It was a game that, if the highest standards for safety were met, perhaps should not have been played at all. When the Florida Everblades took the ice against the Dayton Bombers on Saturday night at the Nutter Center in Fairborn, Ohio, the ice wasn’t near optimal condition.
In fact, the game was delayed more than an hour because the surface had to be completely changed. There was a rock concert on Friday night and a roller derby Saturday morning at the Nutter Center, which led to a bumpy, slushy surface for Saturday night’s Game 3 of the ECHL’s American Conference Finals.
The unpredictable, uneven ice — which had to be repaired several times during the game — might have been expected to hurt the Blades more than the Bombers. Florida plays a faster, always-driving-to-the-net style of hockey, while Dayton tends to be more defensive.
Instead of letting the conditions take control, though, the Blades showed their grit and intensified their ability to rise to the occasion on the road, beating the Bombers 4-3 and gaining a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 will be Sunday at 5 p.m., again at the Nutter Center, which by then should have a much smoother and safer surface.
The winner of this series will face either Alaska or Idaho in the Kelly Cup Finals.
From the beginning, it was clear that neither the Blades nor the Bombers would be able to play at the same level they’d played at in Florida. The ice was simply too slushy and uneven to allow for the quick skating and precise passing seen Thursday at Germain Arena.
Blades coach Gerry Fleming said after the game that he couldn’t recall a time when the Blades had played on ice that bad since he starting coaching them in 2000.
Each time the players got close to the boards, they wobbled a bit in the slush — which workers attempted to repair with shovels and ice during breaks in the action.
In a game like that, strategy, plays and outright talent often become subordinate to toughness, patience and a bit of old-fashioned luck — that is, taking advantage of opportunities.
The Blades did just that with four power play goals on eight opportunities. It started right away in the first period, when the Blades adapted surprisingly well to the forced style change. Florida capitalized twice on the man advantage in that period, on a night when power plays were increasingly crucial.
Five seconds after a penalty on Dayton center Philippe Dupuis, defenseman and team captain Ryan Brindley (pictured) came through for the Blades’ first goal of the night 13 minutes into the game — a slap shot from the blue line that seemed to surprise everyone, even ECHL goalie of the year Adam Berkhoel, who couldn’t react in time to block it.
“That was really important,” Fleming said. “(Ryan) has really elevated his play in the playoffs … he has gone out and competed hard, and he’s made the other guys around him better because of that.”
Then, with one second left in the first period and the Blades on another power play, Florida forward David Brine took the wackiness of the game to another level. Rather than mess with the sloppy ice, Brine instead used his body to knock the puck past Berkhoel, while Brine was sprawled on the ice in front of the net in a desperate attempt to snag the rebound from Brent McDonald‘s shot.
Apparently Brine had found one way to use the poor conditions to his advantage.
His play was emblematic of the night as a whole for the Everblades, who had to have been frustrated with the situation. After all, most of them had already warmed up and mentally prepared for the game when they realized the ice was nowhere near ready. Before the game, they stood around the rink in their warm-ups, uncharacteristically quiet.
It would have been easy enough to blame the ice and lose, but after a couple sub-par games in Florida, the Blades must have known that they had something to prove.
Dayton did come back and score a power-play goal five minutes into the second period, seconds after Florida had managed to kill a 45-second 5-on-3 advantage. Dupuis got a breakaway after a Blades’ turnover in their defensive zone, and he was able to slap back in his rebound after Kowalski saved his first shot.
But then the Everblades continued their torment of Berkhoel by scoring two more goals in the second period, both coming just seconds after a Dayton player headed to the penalty box.
Florida used that same strategy again a little more than a minute later, when it was Chris Lee who was able to capitalize on another Blades charge at Berkhoel, this time as Dupuis headed back to the box.
“We’re realizing how much more important the power play is during the playoffs,” Johner said. “It seems that whoever wins the power plays is winning the games.”
Dayton scored the only even-strength goal of the game with Petr Pohl‘s shot from the right side, behind Kowalski’s back with two minutes left in the second period.
Still, Florida’s dominance on the power play, especially with the ice as choppy as it was on Saturday, proved insurmountable.