By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – To win the prize they’ve always wanted, the Florida Everblades will have to travel further than they ever have before and beat an opponent they have never faced.
The Blades open the ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals at 7:30 tonight against the expansion Idaho Steelheads at TECO Arena.
Florida advanced to the ECHL’s best-of-7 final series by knocking off another first-time opponent, the Reading (Pa.) Royals, in five games to win the Eastern Conference Final.
“We didn’t know much about Reading, but that worked out OK, and we don’t know much about this Idaho team,” Florida forward Brent McDonald said. “As a team we have to go out and play like we did in Game 5 (against Reading, a 3-2 win). The building’s going to be electric again, and we know what we have to do to win. We don’t want to come this far and not win a championship.”
The Blades have some previous experience out west, having made a five-game West Coast swing in November to Las Vegas, Bakersfield, Calif., Long Beach, Calif., and San Diego. Florida went 2-2-1 on that trip.
The 2,787 miles between TECO Arena and the Steelheads’ Bank of America Centre is the longest distance the Blades will have traveled to meet a single opponent in team history.
Although Idaho is in its first ECHL season, it is no average expansion team. The Steelheads are one of six members of the former West Coast Hockey League to join the ECHL this season, making it the only hockey minor league to branch out coast-to-coast.
This is Idaho’s seventh season as a franchise, the first six coming in the WCHL. The last three of those seasons were very good years as the team compiled a 146-54-16 record.
The Steelheads made the WCHL’s Taylor Cup Finals in 2000-01, but lost in seven games to San Diego, and made it again in ’01-’02, only to fall to Fresno. Idaho had the WCHL’s best record last year, going 52-16-4, but was upset by Fresno in the semifinals.
The Steelheads put together their worst record under fourth-year coach John Olver this season, going 40-23-9 to finish third in the Pacific Division. Playoff series wins followed against Las Vegas, and Alaska as the Steelheads reached the Western Conference Finals to face the Gwinnett (Ga.) Gladiators for the first time in franchise history. Idaho won that series in four games to claim the conference title.
“We’re going in somewhat blind,” Idaho coach John Olver said. “It’s no different than when we went into Gwinnett. The only difference is we know we’re going to face a real large and enthusiastic crowd, which the guys are looking forward to.
“Florida is a very good offensive team with some of the top forwards in the playoffs, and they have seven or eight forwards who are very creative offensively.”
Idaho’s defense and goaltending have been very restrictive. The Steelheads have outscored their playoff opponents 41-27 over 13 games.
They are even better in the last 11, all of which with Dan Ellis in goal. Ellis was sent down by Idaho’s American Hockey League affiliate Utah before Game 3 of the Pacific Division semifinals when the Steelheads trailed Las Vegas two games to none.
The Steelheads won the next three and nine of their last 11. Ellis has made a playoff high 317 saves, but has allowed just 20 goals for a .941 save percentage.
“He’s played outstanding,” Olver said. “We wouldn’t be here without Dan. At times, he has won games singlehandedly for us.”
There’s also no one player to shut down in the offensive zone since four Steelheads players have scored in double digits in the playoffs.
Jan Kopecky has 12 points (7 goals), while teammates Lance Gailbraith (6 goals), Zenon Konopka (5 goals) and Dylan Gyori (4 goals) each have 11 points.
Idaho did get a taste or Southern Division competition when South Carolina visited Boise March 5-6. The Stingrays, who Florida swept in the second round of the playoffs to win the Southern Division title, beat the Steelheads 3-1 and 4-2.
“South Carolina swept us and Florida swept South Carolina, so I don’t know what that says,” Olver said.
Florida forward Tom Buckley said his team is taking nothing for granted as it faces the Steelheads for the first time.
“We’re almost there, we haven’t achieved it yet, but we’re almost there,” Buckley said.
“No one’s happy and that’s good. You can be proud of what you achieved but don’t be happy about where you’re at.”