By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – After playing each other 18 times this season, the Florida Everblades and the Texas Wildcatters are finally done. They looked a little sick of each other in Friday night’s 4-3 overtime Blades victory at Germain Arena — a penalty-filled, choppy game that evidenced frustrations for both teams. It didn’t end until 15 minutes into the overtime period, when defenseman Chris Lee slammed in a shot from the blue line.
Now, though, the best-of-seven series is finally over. The Blades will move on to the American Conference finals against the Dayton (Ohio) Bombers. The Bombers defeated Cincinnati four games to three in the North Division Finals.
Florida will play Dayton on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Germain Arena, and then the Blades will go to Ohio for games on May 12, 13 and 15. The best-of-seven series will then return to Florida, if necessary, on May 17 and 18.
Dayton or Florida would face the National Conference champion, either Alaska or Idaho, in the Kelly Cup Finals. The Blades last reached the Kelly Cup in 2005 and lost to Trenton.
Blades coach Gerry Fleming said before Friday’s game that there were no more mysteries when it came to Texas. And it was clear both teams were more than familiar with each other, resulting in evening-up grudges and plenty of cheap shots. Perhaps because of all the penalties, it was tough for either Texas or Florida to get a flow going.
When the Everblades scored their first goal just 30 seconds into the game, it looked as if the rest of the way would be easy — now that the Blades were back at Germain Arena and at near-to full-strength, with three additions recalled from the American Hockey League: defensemen Lee and Mike Card, and forward David Brine.
Blades forward Derek Damon got that first goal off a pass from forward Dustin Johner, who had stolen the puck from Texas behind the Catters’ goal. He flipped the puck behind the back of the goal and across to Damon, who quickly shoved it in, to almost frenzied excitement from the crowd of 6,446.
The Blades’ advantage didn’t last long, though. Texas tied the score on a controversial goal by Jean-Francois David just five minutes into the game. It wasn’t surprising that David scored this goal — the oft-penalized fighter was able to capitalize in a mob near the Everblades’ goal. With goalie Craig Kowalski, and several other players, knocked down, it seemed obvious that a whistle had blown.
Instead, play continued, and David was able to knock the puck past the line, much to fans’ chagrin.
The Everblades were on a power play or 5-on-3 advantage for the next five minutes as Texas collected five straight penalties. This gave the Blades a few opportunities, but they still weren’t able to get off many shots. Florida’s power-play had been sharp in Texas, scoring four goals. But on Friday night, organization seemed to be lacking.
Finally, midway through the period, with the power-play time clicking away, veteran Ryan Brindley scored to give Florida a 2-1 lead. Forwards Vince Bellissimo and Adam Taylor set up the play nicely, when Taylor passed the puck behind the net to Brindley, who fired from the right side of the goal and smacked it so hard into the back of the net that the puck ricocheted back immediately.
While Blades fans continued to celebrate, Texas came back and scored less than a minute later. Again, Kowalski was knocked down, and this time the Catters’ Leon Hayward was able to sneak it in.
The action-packed first period finished with four goals and 10 penalties — five for each team. Texas seemed determined to bring physicality to the game, and the Blades didn’t seem willing to give an inch.
Brindley was able to use that physicality to his advantage in the second period. He took an interference penalty at the end of the first period, then exploded out onto the ice as soon as his penalty ended and scored from the blue line.
Texas evened it up at 3-3 with 16:25 left on a slippery score by Mike Bayrack — it seemed to happen just as the Blades started to relax and the crowd got quiet.
The Catters only got six more shots in the period, and as the Blades weren’t able to capitalize on any of their 12 shots, the game went to the first overtime of the playoffs for the Blades.
Even after a two-minute penalty for too many men on the ice, the Blades had an excellent chance to score when Brine got a breakaway. Instead, he was tripped by Texas’ Mike Madill. Brine got a penalty shot, but it deflected off the side of Texas goalie Matt Yeats‘ stick.
Yeats and Kowalski both made some incredible saves during the overtime period — Kowalski also deflected a penalty shot, from Texas’ Colin Nicholson with 9:38 left in the overtime.
Then, with 4:49 left, Lee made his presence really known — in just his second playoff game this season with Florida. With a long shot from the blue line, Lee slammed in the game-winning goal, deflecting it in off the left post.
After the game, Lee took a well-deserved curtain call to loud audience applause. Seems his long tenure in the American Hockey League hasn’t left him forgotten by Everblades fans.
He’ll have a chance to make more memories in next week’s American Conference finals.