By Ed Reed
TRENTON, N.J. — With their season five minutes away from being all but over, the Florida Everblades found something that had been lacking during their first two ECHL Kelly Cup Finals games — the space behind Trenton Titans goaltender Andrew Allen.
Damian Surma and Brad Fast scored twice in a 51-second span of the third period to tie the game and Ernie Hartlieb buried the game-winner 1:20 into overtime to cap an improbable Blades’ comeback as Florida resurrected its title hopes with a 5-4 win over the Titans in front of 6,350 fans at Sovereign Bank Arena on Friday night.
The Blades climbed back from the precipice of a 3-0 series deficit to cut the Titans’ best-of-7 series lead to 2-1 with their late rally. Game 4 will be at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Trenton.
Hartlieb, who was benched for Game 2 by Florida coach Gerry Fleming, made his mentor look like a genius early in overtime. Defenseman Fast put a shot on Allen that bounced out to Hartlieb in front. The Blades’ forward made no mistakes as he swiped home his sixth goal of the playoffs.
Florida’s comeback in regulation play was sudden and astonishing, considering that Trenton seemed to be in total control of the game. The Titans had taken a 4-2 lead at 9:24 and Allen had been almost unbeatable in the series, having allowed only one goal over the first two games.
Surma’s second goal of the game, with the Titans’ Les Haggett in the box for high sticking, at 14:55 made it 4-3 Trenton. Surma took a pass from Reggie Berg in the right circle and fired a shot inside the near post.
Fast then tied it at 15:46, due in large part to a clean face-off win by teammate David Lundbohm. Fast took the draw at the point and fired a shot through a screen that beat Allen over his glove.
Trenton put heavy pressure on Florida in the final minute of regulation, but Tyler MacKay, who had 22 saves in the game, held the Titans off.
Florida tried to play the physical, hooking, clutching and grabbing style the Titans have displayed all series, but referee Nygel Pelletier would have none of it. Especially when Florida was on the power play. The Blades had four power plays, including a five-minute major, through the first two periods, but all three were cut short with penalties called on them. The Blades ended up with only 4:17 of a possible 11 minutes of man-advantage time.
Surma seemingly had a target on his jersey for calls as he was whistled three times for six minutes after serving a total of eight penalty minutes over the Blades’ first 15 playoffs games.
Brad Church also received a two-minute call against him for elbowing Trenton’s Steve Munn to cut short a second-period power play. That punch came after Munn, who had lost his stick, was repeatedly punching Church in the face in front of the Trenton net and gave him a few more shots as he skated away before Church retaliated.
Trenton wound up with seven power plays over the first two periods and scored once. Stephen Wood gave the Titans a 2-1 lead at 14:09 of the first period with Surma in the box for elbowing. Wood’s one-timer from the left circle beat MacKay in the top corner.
The Titans made it 3-1 at 14:39 of the second period. Michael Schutte swung around the back of the Blades’ net and put a shot over MacKay’s shoulder.
Florida came back thanks to some quick reflexes by forward Keith Anderson. A Ryan Brindley shot from the right circle was stopped by Allen, but the puck popped into the air and Anderson batted it into the goal baseball-style at 18:06 to make it 3-2.
Jerramie Domish put the Titans up by two goals again at 9:24 of the third period when he converted a 2-on-1 break with Scott Bertoli. Bertoli, who picked up his third assist of the game on the play, passed to Domish in the slot and he beat MacKay up high.
The Blades looked like they got the early break they so desperately needed 2:33 into the game when Allen finally made a mistake. Surma carried the puck deep in to the Titans’ zone and his backhand from the goal line hit Allen’s left side and went into the net.
The 1-0 lead didn’t last long. Brent Robinson snapped a quick shot from the left circle — after receiving a pass from Rick Kowalsky out of the left corner — past MacKay at 3:58 to tie the game.