By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
ESTERO — Matt Pagnutti and John Jennings share a memory from the 2000 Kelly Cup Finals that they just can’t seem to shake.
And with the Florida Everblades looking for every ounce of motivation they can get heading up to Trenton, N.J., Pagnutti, Florida’s captain and one of the key defensemen, and Jennings, the equipment manager, were happy to oblige this week.
The Everblades are in an 0-2 hole to the Trenton Titans in the ECHL’s best-of-seven Kelly Cup Finals and leave this morning by plane for New Jersey. The pivotal Game 3 is Friday night at 7:30 at the Sovereign Bank Arena, with Game 4 on Saturday night at 7 and Game 5, if necessary, on Monday at 5 p.m.
Pagnutti was a third-year defenseman with the Louisiana IceGators in 2000 and Jennings the team’s equipment manager when they faced the Peoria (Ill.) Rivermen to decide the league’s champion.
Louisiana, which had only lost at home seven times in the regular season and was riding a 22-game unbeaten streak, took the first two games in Peoria and appeared to have all the momentum going back to Lafayette, La.
“If you go up 2-0 in any series and you’re heading back home for three with the home record that we had that year is pretty special,” Pagnutti, 29, recalled after Tuesday morning’s practice at Germain Arena. “But I think a lot of guys were prematurely sizing rings and talking about what kind of party we were going to have after. It was kind of silly when you look back on it. It was definitely overconfidence and it came back to bite us.”
The Rivermen reeled off victories in the next four games, three of them in overtime, and won the series, 4-2, becoming just the third team in the ECHL’s 16-year history to come back from an 0-2 deficit. They still are the only ones to do it after losing the first two games at home.
Jennings and Pagnutti talked to the rest of the Everblades players about that series Monday morning and tried to send a message that it can be done because it was done to them. And Louisiana was considered to be the far superior team in those Finals, even though both teams finished with the same amount of points in the regular season.
“Of the four times I’ve been to the Cup Finals — twice now with Florida and twice with Louisiana — that one sticks in my craw the most,” Jennings said. “Last year it was the first time we went and we were matched up against the teams that I thought we couldn’t beat and then we moved on. But that Louisiana team, there was nobody that could have beaten us. Just with the talent and the toughness, but they got overconfident and Peoria was super fired up.”
It was a handful of different incidents that motivated the Rivermen, starting with IceGators general manager Jady Regard asking the merchandise manager from Peoria to sell back the Kelly Cup merchandise since the series was coming back to town.
Some words Regard had with then-player/coach Jason Christie, telling him he’ll get his shot next year, along with the parade route being mapped out in Louisiana and replica Kelly Cups being passed around the arena, sealed the IceGators’ fate.
“It can be done, there’s no question it can be done, and we have as good a chance as anybody,” Pagnutti said. “All we have to do is win two up there, and that first one Friday is big. As far as Peoria, they had every reason to be mad and they channeled that anger into emotion to win those hockey games. You could just see after Game 3 (a 5-4 double-overtime win for Peoria) the whole tide of the series just turned completely.”
That’s what the Everblades are hoping for.