By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Throughout the regular season, the Florida Everblades won more games than any other ECHL team by wearing their opponents down over two periods, and then ambushing them in the third period with constant waves of offensive pressure.
Throughout the playoffs thus far, the Blades weren’t really able to implement that suffocating offensive pressure.
That is, they weren’t able to implement it until Saturday night in Game 2 of the South Division finals, when top-seeded Florida’s offense awoke from hibernation and pressured second-seeded South Carolina all night long, culminating in a 4-3 victory. The Stingrays almost tied the game in the last 59 seconds after scoring two goals in the final three minutes, but the Blades’ defense held on.
“We moved the puck better,” Blades coach Malcolm Cameron said. “We’ve just got to get it done at the end of the game.”
Earlier in the game for the Blades, regular-season ECHL MVP Kevin Baker also woke up his own offensive game, tallying a goal and two assists after scoring just a goal and an assist in the six playoff games prior.
“The chemistry was there tonight,” Baker said. “Obviously that goal felt good. … I was getting frustrated with myself, and I can’t do that.”
The Blades and Stingrays play in South Carolina for Games 3, 4 and 5 on Friday, Saturday and next Sunday in the best-of-seven series. South Carolina won 2-1 in overtime in Game 1 on Friday night at Germain Arena.
On Saturday the Stingrays played without their top scorer and the ECHL’s top assist man, Travis Morin. The 2008-09 ECHL first-team selection suffered a wrist injury in Game 1 but is expected to play in Game 3.
Intensity, aggressive, physical play and offense were clearly improved early on Saturday night for both teams, and it resulted in quite a few more penalties, including 10 in the first period alone. Five of those penalties were on the Stingrays, giving Florida five chances on the man advantage. But the Blades still looked a bit discombobulated on their power play and weren’t able to capitalize.
Then, Florida opened the second period with a flurry of shots on South Carolina goalie Jonathan Boutin. Instead of that resulting in a Blades goal, though, Stingrays forward Pierre Luc O’Brien was able to steal the puck from defenseman Peter Metcalf near the blue line. O’Brien took off on a breakaway, no Blades players could get back, and O’Brien scored on a powerful wrist shot to make it 1-0 Stingrays two minutes into the second period.
Florida answered just a minute and 19 seconds later, as the Blades’ power play finally got in sync and Baker took a pass on the side from Ernie Hartlieb to tie the game. Baker raised his arms in celebration but was cut down quickly with a push from behind by South Carolina defenseman Brad Farynuk.
Nonetheless, Florida’s momentum continued on the power play less than two minutes later when Milan Gajic made a nice short pass from the corner to Mathieu Roy, who chipped the puck past Boutin for a 2-1 Blades lead.
The Blades would get another big chance for an insurance goal later in the period when back-to-back Stingrays penalties gave Florida a 5-on-3 advantage for 72 seconds. But the Blades again came up short and clung to their narrow one-goal lead heading into the third period.
That narrowness wouldn’t last long, as the Blades continued to pour on their relentless pressure to score an insurance goal just two minutes into the third period. Andrew Sweetland got his second of the playoffs on a one-timer from the left side on a pass from Mark Lee, a fluid goal that demonstrated how much Florida’s offense had finally come back in sync.
Another demonstration came five minutes later, as Gajic took a sly pass from Yannick Tifu to add to Florida’s offensive rejuvenation and put the game further out of reach for South Carolina.
The Blades made fans’ hearts beat a little faster, though, by giving up two goals in the game’s final three minutes, making it a one-goal game with one minute left. Goals were from O’Brien, his second of the night, and Nate Kiser, both on short, off-speed shots that came from close range.
South Carolina had several good chances to tie it in the final 59 seconds, with Boutin pulled and a man advantage, but somehow the Blades barely held on.
“We’re a great offensive team, and that’s got to be our strong point,” Sweetland said.