By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – If the Florida Everblades are going to get past the Charlotte Checkers and reach the ECHL Kelly Cup Finals for the second consecutive season, league history has shown that they will need either goalie Tyler MacKay or Craig Kowalski (pictured) to lead them.
MacKay had his shot, now it’s Kowalski’s turn.
Kowalski will receive his second consecutive playoff start Monday night when the Blades take on the Checkers in Game 1 of the America Conference Finals at Germain Arena.
Kowalski was the starter and winner in Florida’s 2-1, overtime victory against the Greenville Grrrowl on Tuesday that closed out that semifinal series. Mac-Kay started the previous six games and went 4-1, but had poor, by playoff-standard, statistics — a 3.04 goals-against average and .892 save percentage.
Kowalski, a rookie, has faced only 35 shots in three postseason appearances, and has a 0.68 goals-against average and .971 save percentage. He has won two games, the first coming in relief of MacKay just 51 seconds into the third period of Game 2 against Greenville, which ended 4-3 in overtime.
“I think I got most of the rust off, thank God,” said Kowalski, who missed almost the entire final three months of the regular season with a groin injury. “I felt a lot better out there. I’ve had a lot of practices, but it was nice to get a full game under my belt and get the old legs back again. It felt good to be out there.”
How important is goaltending in ECHL playoff history? Of the past 16 league champions, 12 had a goalie rank in the top five in playoff goals-against average. That included last season’s champion, Idaho, which beat the Blades in five games in the Kelly Cup Finals behind the performance of goalie Dan Ellis. Ellis posted a 1.86 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in 16 postseason games. Florida’s goalie tandem of Rob Zepp (2.71, .911) and Jeff Maund (2.93, .911) had respectable numbers, but they were not quite good enough.
Of course, final numbers don’t always tell the whole story. Tyrone Garner of the 2002 Kelly Cup-champion Greenville Grrrowl did not finish in the top five in goals-against average, but he did lead the postseason in wins (12) and saves (417), and had a 1.75 GAA and .945 save percentage in the Finals series as the Grrrowl swept Dayton. And, by the way, he was also named playoff co-MVP.
Florida would certainly like to see one of its two goalies catch fire like Ellis or Garner did. Especially with a red-hot goaltender such as Charlotte’s Alex Westlund guarding the opposing net.
Westlund has been phenomenal for the Checkers. He’s made 330 saves in nine games, with a 1.90 GAA and .948 save percentage. He also stopped 50 shots for a 3-0 shutout of Gwinnett on Wednesday to close out that semifinal series in four games.
“I watched the tape yesterday and more than one should have gone in,” Charlotte coach Derek Wilkinson said Thursday.
“We need a chance to win. If we have a lead, he can’t lose it, and if we’re tied, give us a chance to score the game-winner. That’s what he’s done every game, given us a chance to win and more often than not we’ve taken advantage. If we do that against Florida, then we have a chance to win.”
MacKay and Kowalski see Westlund as a challenge.
“You never want to be outplayed by the other guy,” said Kowalski, who went 13-6-6 in the regular season, with a 2.87 GAA. “Especially in the playoffs, it comes down to whoever’s goalie is playing better. It doesn’t matter if you have 60 shots if you only have one goal. Whoever’s playing, me or Tyler, I think we’re up for the challenge and, hopefully, we can beat these guys.”
MacKay led the Blades into the playoffs, posting an 18-3-2 regular-season record, with a 1.92 GAA and .928 save percentage, after being acquired from Atlantic City in early February. He had played in two playoff games with Wheeling last season and had a respectable 2.02 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Kowalski started the season in a goalie rotation with Zepp, but by mid-December he had pulled ahead and started 14 of 20 games until he tweaked his groin in a game Jan. 22. The plan was to rest Kowalski for a few games to let it heal, but that ended when Zepp injured his knee and had to come out of a game against Louisiana on Jan. 29. Kowalski entered the game and injured his groin worse. He would not play again until April 8 — a full 30 games later.
“I was starting to be a little more consistent at that point and then went down,” said Kowalski, who missed the last month of his senior college season at Northern Michigan with a similar groin injury. “I didn’t think I was going to be out as long as I was. Fortunately, I was able to get back the (regular season’s) last weekend and get on the playoff roster. Now we’ll see what happens from here.”
MacKay is not ready to concede the starting job to Kowalski forever. “I’m disappointed I’m going to be on the bench, but it’s just another part of hockey,” he said. “You can’t play every day. Coaches make decisions on who’s starting every night and who’s not. There’s no love lost. K-wal is a very capable goalie. He played very well in Greenville and came out with some very big saves at some very key times.”MacKay only looked comfortable in one of the six games he played, which was Game 1 against Greenville, when his night ended five minutes early due to a brawl toward the end of the game.
So what is Blades coach Gerry Fleming looking for in his starting goalie?
“Just to see if they’re in the game, to see if they’re stopping the puck, to see if they’re not allowing bad goals, how they’re playing the puck, how their focus is, if they’re moving quick,” Fleming said. “All those things go into making your decision.”
And, for now, the decision is to start Kowalski.