By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – One point separated the Florida Everblades and the Trenton Titans in the final standings for the 2004-05 ECHL season.
One year separates the two franchises in age, with Florida being the elder. Their nearly identical records differ by the fact that the Everblades (42-20-10) forced one more overtime game than the Titans (42-21-9), and thus picked up an extra point for ending regulation in a tie.
Both the Everblades and Titans have been referred to as model organizations throughout the league and within their respective regions, yet they have never met on the ice, not even in the preseason — until now.
And that first meeting couldn’t come in a more appropriate setting than in the best-of-seven Kelly Cup Finals, which begins Saturday at 7:30 with Game 1 at Germain Arena.
“I am surprised it is the first time ever in league play they have met, but not at how long it took (to meet in the finals),” says ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna (pictured), who was the Titans’ general manager from their inaugural season in 1999-2000 through 2001-02. “There is so much parity in the league that you feel a lot of luck has to play into who makes it this far. The fact that Florida has made it back to the last round a second straight year is phenomenal. It’s very difficult to do that.”
The Everblades became the first team to reach back-to-back Kelly Cup Finals since the name of the championship trophy was changed from the Riley Cup after the 1995-96 season.
Only three other teams accomplished the feat in the league’s 16-year history — the Toledo Storm (1992-93 and 1993-94), Hampton Roads Admirals (1990-91 and 1991-92) and Greensboro Monarchs (1989-90 and 1990-91). Toledo and Hampton Roads each won back-to-back titles.
Last year’s unexpected run by the Everblades was a thrill for fans and for the team, but how it ended — a loss in five games to the Idaho Steelheads — was not what team president/general manager Craig Brush had in mind. Nor did head coach Gerry Fleming.
So the two of them went about building a team in the offseason designed not only to make it all the way to the finals, but to win it. A team with depth, skill, versatility and able to be at its sharpest when it counts.
“This has been a great year so far, but there’s some unfinished business,” Brush says. “I know that every guy in the locker room is focused on that, that we’re not content just to win a conference championship this year. We want the whole prize.”
Fleming, in his fourth season behind the bench with Florida, has surrounded himself with the perfect mix of returning players from last year, hungry veterans craving a championship and young rookies looking to make a name for themselves.
All it takes is one look at the three forward lines Fleming has been rolling out in the playoffs to this point to see that chemistry at work.
His first line of center Damian Surma and wingers Reggie Berg and Brad Church consists of two forwards with National Hockey League experience (Church and Surma) and a playmaker in Berg who has been among the most productive scorers in the ECHL over the last five years.
Then comes the second line of rookie center David Lundbohm, fellow rookie left wing Steve Saviano and right wing Paul Cabana, which happens to be the top scoring line in the playoffs. The trio has put up a combined 49 points, with Lundbohm leading all scorers with 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists).
Fleming’s third line has had a few different looks, with Kris Vernarsky at center up until Game 5 of the American Conference Finals against the Charlotte Checkers. Brent McDonald, playing with a soft cast on his fractured left hand, took over after coming off the 30-day injured reserve and Vernarsky, Keith Anderson, Ernie Hartlieb and Chris Lee have been the regular wingers.
But Fleming is well aware of how tough a defensive team Trenton has and also at how well-rounded the Titans are. During the regular season, Trenton was 12th in goals for (2.96) and 12th in goals against (2.74) and improved to a tie for fourth in the playoffs in goals for (2.93) and fourth in goals against (2.29).
“Overall, they’re solid from the back end straight up to their forwards,” Fleming says. “Their special teams, they do a good job of clogging up the neutral zone. So they’re going to be a good challenge.”
Florida’s defense has been strong as well, especially in limiting the number of shots goaltenders Tyler MacKay and rookie Craig Kowalski have had to see. The defensive corps of veterans Matt Pagnutti, Shane Hnidy and Ryan Brindley, Tim O’Connell, Simon Tremblay and Brad Fast, along with the backchecking forwards, have allowed a league-best average of 25.62 shots per game.
MacKay has recorded two consecutive shutouts and is 7-3 with a 2.33 goals-against-average and a .908 save percentage. Kowalski is 3-0 with a 2.83 GAA and .892 save percentage.
Through the first three rounds of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, the Everblades took the approach of sticking to their own game and not worrying too much about what their opponent brought to the table. It worked to their advantage as they gained confidence in knowing they can adapt to any style.
There was no better example of how successful that approach has been than in the conference finals against Charlotte. Games 1 and 2 showcased a lot of scoring and up-and-down hockey, ending in scores of 6-4 in favor of Florida in the first one and 5-4 for the Checkers in the second.
Game 3 in Charlotte’s Cricket Arena was won by the Everblades, 2-1, in which there was just one penalty called, and the Checkers followed with a 4-1 in game 4 before losing 5-0 in Estero in Game 5. Florida clinched the series with a 1-0 overtime win in Game 6.
“We’ve won in a lot of situations, being down, playing with a lead, coming from behind, overtime,” says Cabana, who played 23 games in the National Conference with the Reading Royals before being traded to Florida at the trade deadline on March 22. “I also think we’ve been successful when a team came out, like in the South Carolina series, and all they wanted to do was run us into the boards and intimidate us.
“With the Charlotte series we proved we can run and gun with teams, play the offensive game and at the same time limit the pucks that are going on our net, so I think if we can take all of that and bring it in this final series we should do well.”
Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, N.J., was built with the design of Estero’s Germain Arena as a partial blueprint. And in the beginning for Trenton, the building filled up at a comparable to pace to Germain, which was known as TECO Arena until last summer.
But in these playoffs, the Titans are averaging just 2,861 in seven home dates compared to 5,381 for Florida in the same number of games — and Florida’s numbers are down from last year’s playoffs.
Titans coach Mike Haviland was a vital cog in the early years as an assistant coach to Bruce Cassidy in 1999-2000 and to Troy Ward in 2000-01, which was the year Trenton lost to the South Carolina Stingrays in the Kelly Cup Finals in five games.
He was the head coach of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies from 2001-04, leading them to the Kelly Cup Championship in 2002-03. By leading the Titans past the Alaska Aces in seven games to win the National Conference, he reminded McKenna of the franchise’s success under his tenure as well as the mirrored success in Florida.
“On the ice, both were immediately competitive. We’ve seen more teams come in and pattern themselves after that model,” McKenna says. “Teams like Gwinnett (Ga.), Reading (Pa.) and Las Vegas last year were successful right away and played in similar size buildings, and they were good organizations right off the hop. Both teams have had good followings. Florida has led the league every year in attendance and has been able to maintain that interest beyond the honeymoon period.”
Although McKenna would have liked to have seen a Florida-Alaska finals because of the national attention it would have brought, he anticipates this series to be go at least six games.
One good thing that came out of the match-up is the fact that McKenna should get to see all seven games. He will be in Southwest Florida this weekend for Games 1 and 2 and then back in Trenton for the next three. The ECHL’s league offices are in nearby Princeton, N.J.
“I think we’re going to see a good series,” he says. “I haven’t seen enough of either team to get a good feel but we hope it’s a good series and entertaining for the fans. Also having a few days off to prepare, you’ll see both teams at the top of their games.”