By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. — What started out as a playoff hockey game Wednesday night at Germain Arena evolved into a haphazard free-for-all, with the more skilled team coming away victorious.
The Florida Everblades routed the South Carolina Stingrays, 7-4, in Game 1 of the ECHL’s best-of-five American Conference quarterfinal series in front of a boisterous crowd of 4,097 and an officiating crew that was kept very busy.
“I don’t think we played our best hockey game but it’s hard to play a game like that,” said Everblades veteran defenseman and team captain Matt Pagnutti, who had a goal and three assists. “It’s a really scrambly hockey game and it’s not a real pleasant game to watch I’m sure for the fans. But that’s the style they play and we’ve got to adjust to it.”
Game 2 is Friday night at Germain Arena at 7:30.
Rookie forward David Lundbohm scored two goals in his playoff debut, including what proved to be the game-winner 11:43 into the second period past Stingrays rookie goalie Justin Eddy, who was pulled right after.
Fellow rookie Steve Saviano totaled four assists as Florida overcame a shaky defensive performance.
Matt Hendricks, the rookie forward who was voted as a starter to the All-Star team for the Everblades, left the game in the first period with a leg injury and was taken to a local hospital. His status for the rest of the playoffs is unknown.
Hendricks was one of two Everblades players to go out in the first period with injuries as a result of the physical play employed by the Stingrays. Defenseman Brad Fast took a hard hit into the boards while battling for the loose puck and suffered a knee injury. He left the dressing room after the game on crutches.
“They tried to hack and whack and hack and whack and as a result they took some undisciplined penalties,” Everblades head coach Gerry Fleming said of the Stingrays. “They’re the most penalized team in the league for a reason, and I was proud of the way the guys fought through it.”
In addition to Hendricks and Fast, Florida goaltender Tyler MacKay injured his left leg in the first period.
Appropriately, Florida’s Reggie Berg scored the first goal of the night at the 2:57 mark of the first period in a 4-on-4 situation. Berg became a father on Tuesday and headed back to the hospital after the game to be with his wife, Christy, and their newborn son.
Defenseman Tim O’Connell fired a shot from the right corner that Stingrays goalie Justin Eddy stopped and Berg was there for the rebound, wristing home a shot into the open net.
“It’s been a pretty amazing couple of days here for me and my family, and it was just nice to be able to contribute to a win after a long couple of days like that,” Berg said.
But South Carolina answered with a soft unassisted goal 4:31 into the period by Carlyle Lewis to tie it at 1-1 as his shot from the right corner bounced off MacKay’s left leg pad and into the net
At the 6:20 mark, Pagnutti stuffed in a rebound from in front to restore the lead for Florida at 2-1. Kris Vernarsky and Saviano got the assists after putting the initial shots on net.
Play bogged down for the next five minutes or so until South Carolina came at MacKay hard and capitalized on a rebound at the 12:29 mark to tie it at 2-2. Jeremy Stevenson put the puck high into the back of the net with MacKay sprawled on the ice off assists from Nate Kiser and Brad Parsons to quiet the home crowd.
Just when some of the natives started to get restless, Saviano and Lundbohm hooked up with 25.7 seconds left in the period to steal back the momentum.
Saviano took the breakout pass from Pagnutti, skated down the left side and then slid a pass over to Lundbohm at the last second, who buried a wrister inside the left post for a 3-2 lead.
“I thought we played a good first period.
We found ourselves trailing 3-2,” Stingrays coach Jason Fitzsimmons said. “I thought the goal the last 25 seconds, that one really hurt us and it carried the momentum. The result isn’t what I wanted but I didn’t mind the way we played. We finished a lot of checks and we got a lot of shots.”
South Carolina outshot Florida, 44-28, including 20-11 in the first period. Florida picked up where it left off in the second period, putting more pressure on Eddy until he finally broke at the 4:01 mark. Damian Surma won the face-off from the right circle back to NHL veteran defenseman Shane Hnidy, who blasted a slapshot on net that Brad Church redirected in between Eddy’s leg for a 4-2 lead.