By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
TRENTON, N.J. — If you’re a Trenton Titans fan, forward Leon Hayward is one of your favorite players.
If you’re a fan of any other team playing the Titans, Hayward is one of the players you love to hate.
Florida Everblades fans definitely hate Hayward now after he sparked the Titans’ improbable 5-2 comeback victory Monday in Game 5 of the ECHL’s best-of-seven Kelly Cup Finals to give them a 3-2 lead in the series.
The 25-year-old Seattle native dramatically turned the game and the series around with his breakaway goal 2:53 into the third period to cut Trenton’s deficit to 2-1 after it looked like Florida had sapped all the energy out of the team and the home fans.
“Leon’s goal was huge for us, a breakaway goal, got us rolling and that’s exactly what you need,” said Titans goalie Andrew Allen. “We needed the momentum, needed to get the crowd loud in here again and it was a great goal to get us going. It was early enough and from that point in we really dominated.”
Hayward’s a feisty and talented player who is in his fourth season in the ECHL, and he also played 24 games this season in the American Hockey League, 21 with the Providence Bruins and three with the Manchester Monarchs. He starred at Northeastern University from 1998-2002.
So far in the playoffs, he has had a knack for timely goals. In Game 4 of the North Division finals against Reading and his team trailing 3-1, Hayward scored to make it 3-2 and that also swung the momentum in his favor. Veteran forwards Scott Bertoli and Rick Kowalsky said after Monday’s game that after Hayward scored they knew they were going to win.
“MacKay is playing great, you’ve got to tip your hat to him he’s played unbelievable, and to get one on him it felt like maybe we could get another one,” said Hayward, who added another goal on a tip-in at the 12:35 mark to make it 4-2. “I’ve never been in an avalanche but I think that’s what it would probably feel like. It just felt like we were skating downhill there for a little bit.”
MacKay said Hayward’s first goal went off his blocker and then both posts before going into the back of the net.
In Games 1 and 2 back at Germain Arena, Hayward drew the ire of Everblades fans for his physical play and the way he tried to get in the heads of the Florida players with his tight checking and stick work. He also created scoring opportunities with his speed.
Back on his home ice he seemed to have even more jump in all three games, even though the Everblades had done the reverse in Games 3 and 4 and dominated the third periods of both, including the brief overtime period of Game 4. With their 5-4 OT win and 6-3 win in Saturday’s Game 4, the Everblades had gotten into Trenton’s head, but Hayward was one of the players who kept his team upbeat.
“He brings energy and he wears a letter (alternate captain) for a reason on a team that has some older guys,” Titans head coach Mike Haviland said. “Every night he can be an agitator but he also can score some big goals and that’s the reason why you either hate him or you love him as an opposing team. Right now I think the guys in the room love him.”