By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – Charlotte Checkers coach Derek Wilkinson said after his team’s pregame skate Tuesday morning that if either his club or Florida got hot on the power play, it could decide Tuesday night’s game, and possibly the series.
He was right on the first count. Florida’s power-play unit lit up the Checkers for three goals, surpassing the Everblades’ total of two in the series’ first four games combined, on their way to a 5-0 victory over Charlotte in the fifth game of the ECHL American Conference Finals.
“It could win a game and especially win a series, so special teams are going to be critical,” Wilkinson said. “I just hope there’s not a penalty parade, really. The past couple of games have been really good. The guys have been able to decide it.”
The penalties came, mostly against the Checkers, and the Blades’ power-play unit decided the game early. Florida scored on its first two opportunities, converted 3-of-6 over the first two periods, when the game was still in doubt, and 3-of-10 overall with 15 shots.
Florida defenseman Ryan Brindley (pictured) scored on a shot from along the right boards just six seconds after Charlotte’s Thomas Bellemare was called for high sticking Florida forward Paul Cabana , one minute, 43 seconds into the game.
The Blades then made it 2-for-2 at 13:08 of the first, 18 seconds after Charlotte’s Dave Liffiton received two minutes for elbowing Brent McDonald. Cabana re-directed a Brindley shot from the point past goalie Alex Westlund to give the Blades a 2-0 first period lead.
Brindley, for one, wasn’t worried about Florida’s power play, which had gone just 2-of-15 in the series and 6-of-50 in the playoffs entering the game. The Blades had fired a lot of shots on Westlund in the series, including 18 in Game 2.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Brindley, who also added two assists, before the game. “It’s a percentage game and hopefully tonight we break through.
“There’s no secret to scoring goals. There’s prime real estate in front of the net and that’s where you want to be so we just have to get guys there and fighting to get those loose pucks. It’s not something we haven’t done, we just haven’t been able to get them in the net.”
That changed Tuesday as Florida had bodies in front of Westlund on the first two goals.
The third, scored by David Lundbohm on a bang-bang play off a cross-ice pass from Brindley at 15:43 of the second period, came with eight seconds left on a Blades 5-on-3 advantage.
“You’re not going to beat a hot goalie with a shot he can see, so the more traffic you can get in front, the more guys that crash the net, the more opportunities we’re going to have to put home a rebound or screen a shot and score some goals,” said Florida defenseman Chris Lee, who added two power-play assists Tuesday.
Neither team’s power play had too many chances to be special in the previous two games. The teams combined for an ECHL-tying record low one penalty in Friday’s game with Florida’s Brad Church sitting two minutes for high sticking with five minutes left in his team’s 2-1 win. Both clubs had three power-play chances on Sunday, but neither scored in Charlotte’s 4-1 victory. Charlotte went 0-for-4 on its power play Tuesday night.
“In the last two games the penalty kill has stepped up and nullified their power play,” said Blades associate coach Jay Nobili, who is in charge of the special teams units. “You look at a game that’s 2-1 and there’s only one penalty called in the third period with five minutes left. If that penalty isn’t killed, then it’s a 2-2 hockey game. I think the penalty kill is the part of special teams that I think gets ignored fairly often because it’s not fun to watch, which is normal.
“If you kill a penalty, just as much energy can be created from it as scoring on the power play.”