By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – The Florida Everblades, bullied for much of the American Conference Finals by the Dayton Bombers, turned the tables at the right time and will skate again after a 6-3 win in Game 6 on Thursday night before 5,301 fans at Germain Arena.
Florida scored three third-period goals to avoid elimination and force a decisive Game 7, which will be played Friday night at Germain — the first Game 7 in Blades history and just the fifth ever in the ECHL conference finals. The winner advances to the Kelly Cup Finals to face the National Conference champion Idaho Steelheads, who beat Alaska four games to one.
After two periods and five games of being roughed up by Dayton, the Everblades took the role of aggressors in the third period Thursday.
It was a game of hope, dashed hope, exuberance, hopelessness and ultimately euphoria, at least for the Everblades and their fans.
“The whole building just erupted,” Coach Gerry Fleming said.
That eruption and euphoria didn’t come until 11 minutes into the third period, in the form of Dustin Johner‘s breakaway shorthanded goal, which put the Blades up 4-3 — their first lead of the game. Johner dropped to one knee and raised a fist in celebration after scoring, his gesture symbolic of a resurrected season, after the Blades had flirted with elimination by giving up two first-period goals.
“I got real excited,” Johner said after the game, grinning. “I guess I seem to celebrate pretty big.”
A minute after Johner’s triumphant go-ahead goal, Vince Bellissimo scored from the left side, about eight feet out, to give the Blades an insurance goal and a 5-3 lead. Then, it was all Florida — and Dayton seemed to crumble and implode into itself.
Blades forward Brent McDonald scored an empty-netter with less than two minutes left, and the frustration … or something … caused the Bombers to lose their cool. Blades goalie Craig Kowalski was leveled near the net, and Brett Peterson rushed to defend him. The result was a game-ending rumble that led to five players being escorted off the ice.
Probably not the way the Bombers wanted to approach Friday night’s game, but luckily no one was injured.
Florida forward Jarret Lukin said he thought the Blades’ physical play and dominance on offense led to the Bombers’ end-of-game frustrations.
“They’re the kind of team that if you allow them to stay in it, they will,” Lukin said of Dayton. “So we didn’t … our game plan was to keep attacking them, and our forwards did a good job of forechecking. If you look at the shots (46-29 in favor of Florida) … that’s the way we have to play.”
Before the three third-period goals, the Blades played catch-up most of the game, each time scoring to tie it up and then again falling behind. The momentum started to shift when Blades forward Derek Damon‘s second-period goal tied the score at 3-3.
Hope seemed to explode at Germain Arena as Damon’s shot hit the back of the net. His wraparound goal electrified the Blades and their fans, and there seemed an extra energy in the air.
Minutes after Damon’s goal, which was assisted by Lukin, those two finished a couple forechecks as the Bombers attempted to advance into their offensive zone. The Blades were starting to look like the aggressors … a role Dayton had monopolized most of the series.
The Bombers had taken a 3-2 lead on Trevor Hendrikx‘s goal just two minutes into the second period.
A minute before that, Johner had tied the score on a shorthanded, breakaway goal. Just as Damon’s goal brought hope for the Blades, so had Johner’s … his excitement visible as he raised his arms in triumph.
There were plenty of moments of glory for the Blades throughout the first two periods, but most were fleeting. After all, the Blades outshot the Bombers 17-9 in the first period, but it was Dayton who took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
The Bombers seemed to swarm whenever the Blades got near the net, and the congestion made it tough for Florida to get clean looks at the goal.
Bombers forward Philippe Dupuis scored the first goal of the night, on a tip from Brad Farynuk‘s wrist shot near the blue line. The score came on Dayton’s first power play. Before that, the Blades had been dominant and were able to keep the puck in their offensive zone.
Dupuis’s goal came after the Blades had failed to convert on several chances. It must have been frustrating for Florida, and the fans responded by quieting down as Dayton stole the momentum.
Germain Arena got even quieter two minutes later, when Yannick Tifu‘s power-play goal put the Bombers up 2-0. The Blades were still outshooting the Bombers by a wide margin, but it didn’t seem to matter.
Johner said he never consciously thought the series would end Thursday night at Germain Arena, but after Dayton took a two-goal lead, “It started to enter our minds.”
Finally, with 10 seconds left in the period, Bellissimo put the Blades on the board with a wrap-around goal to make it 2-1 after one period of play. That goal gave the Blades a much-needed jolt of hope, despite all the frustrations against the Bombers defense.
After all, for the Blades, it has been a long, frustrating series with Dayton. There was no way they wanted it to end at Germain Arena on Thursday night … and in the third period, they made sure it didn’t. There were lots of ups and downs, lots of excitement and then despair, but eventually the moments of hope won out.
“We knew we gotta play to our strength, which is our skating … Game 7 will be a huge game for us, and now we know how we can play,” Johner said.