By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
BOISE, Idaho – Think the Idaho Steelheads’ playoff story is surprising? The Florida Everblades are a shocking ending right out of must-see TV.
Think Boise is nuts for hockey right now? Southwest Florida is in a whole other insane asylum.
The Idaho Steelheads leave today for a road trip unlike any other in franchise history. The stakes, the distance, the frenzied crowd — it’s all at a level the Steelheads could only dream about until they joined the coast-to-coast ECHL this season.
The Steelheads and Everblades open their best-of-seven Kelly Cup Finals series Friday and Saturday at TECO Arena in Estero, Fla. Both were third-place finishers in their divisions during the regular season, and both have generated phenomenal community buzz in recent weeks.
“What we have here, it’s crazy,” Florida forward Brian McCullough said. “Every radio station you turn on, every TV station you turn on, they’re talking about Everblades playoffs and the run to the Kelly Cup.”
He isn’t kidding.
The Everblades sold out Game 1 on Tuesday, less than 24 hours after securing a berth with a Game 5 win over Reading in the Eastern Conference Finals, and only a few tickets remain for Game 2. The team sold 3,000 tickets immediately after Monday’s game.
The Steelheads, by comparison, filled only half the building on the first day of sales for Games 3 and 4 next week.
The Everblades have led the league in attendance the past four seasons. They averaged 6,214 fans this year.
This is the first time they have escaped the second round of playoffs and just the second time they got past the first round.
“To be the team that delivers to the people who have stuck with this team for so many years is really special,” McCullough said.
This was almost the most disappointing Everblades team of all.
The Southern Division race was so tight that if the Everblades had not won their final three games, they would not have made the playoffs. They squeaked in as the No. 3 seed, one point ahead of No. 4 South Carolina and two points ahead of left-out Greensboro.
In fact, the Everblades won five of their last six games and needed all of those points.
“We got in by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin,” third-year coach Gerry Fleming said.
This was a team in turmoil in early February. Florida went 1-7-2 from Jan. 24 to Feb. 10 and four players were arrested on charges including DUI and disorderly conduct.
Then Tom Buckley came out of retirement Feb. 12. Buckley is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer — basically its Cal Ingraham — and he wanted one more shot at the playoff run that had eluded his previous Florida teams.
Plus, Reggie Berg returned March 12 from a series of concussions. Two more players returned from the American Hockey League and three trades brought some much-needed fresh blood in the final two months.
That group includes the ECHL’s leading playoff goal scorer (Buckley, 9) and leading playoff assist man (Berg, 13), and key playoff contributors Ryan Brindley (9 points), Damian Surma (7), Chad LaRose (7) and Tim O’Connell (5).
“A lot of the guys that went through the grind, when we had 12-13 skaters, were worn out at the end of the year,” said McCullough, the leading scorer during the regular season who has slumped in the playoffs. “Those guys came in and kind of took it over a little bit. They came in on fire, and that made a big difference.”
Even an injury to starting goalie Jeff Maund, who got the team to the playoffs, didn’t stop the Everblades. Rob Zepp took over during the first-round series against Roanoke and is 8-1 in the playoffs with a 2.16 goals-against average.
Now it’s Zepp that the Everblades expect to carry them to a championship.
“Maundo got us into the playoffs,” Fleming said, “and Rob took it from there.”
So Florida, home to beautiful beaches and spring training baseball, has become hockey heaven. The Tampa Bay Lightning, 2 hours up the road, are in the NHL Eastern Conference Finals.
The buzz is about the same in both cities.
“I haven’t seen anything like it,” McCullough said.