TOLEDO, OH – The Kelly Cup Final kicked off Friday at Huntington Center as the ECHL’s top team, the Toledo Walleye, hosted the Florida Everblades. Both teams have been in this position in recent years (Toledo in 2019, Florida in 2018), and both were on the losing side. One of these teams will come away with the Cup this time, and it’s sure to be a battle to the finish. The series’ opening game was a clear indication of that.
The Walleye opened the scoring with two goals in the first period. Randy Gazzola got his team started with his second goal of the playoffs. Mitchell Heard passed across the ice to Gazzola, and his one-timer from the top of the faceoff circle beat Everblades goaltender Cam Johnson glove side.
Four minutes later, with Florida’s Lukas Kaelble in the penalty box for a hook, John Albert extended the lead for Toledo. Brandon Hawkins took a shot from the faceoff circle, and Johnson made the save, but Matt Berry was right on the doorstep. Berry got the puck over to Albert parked at the corner of the net, and he knocked it in off Johnson’s skate as the netminder was sprawled on the ice.
The Walleye entered the second period with a 2-0 lead and seemed to be continuing their dominance, outshooting the Everblades 9-4 in the first ten minutes of the stanza. Then Berry took a tripping penalty at 12:18 and gave Florida their first power play of the game.
It took only 18 seconds with the man advantage before the Everblades were able to cut the Walleye lead in half. Blake Winiecki traded passes with defenseman Stefan Leblanc before passing up to Jake Jaremko. Jaremko passed across the crease to Zach Solow, who deflected the puck past Toledo netminder Billy Christopoulos.
That goal seemed to turn the tide, and the Walleye didn’t register another shot on goal the remainder of the middle frame.
The Everblades continued their comeback into the third period, tying the game at 2-2 less than seven minutes in. Levko Koper brought the puck into the offensive zone before passing to the trailer Kaelble. Kaelble’s shot was stopped by Christopoulos, but the rebound came right to Alex Aleardi skating toward the net, and he fired it home.
Later in the period, Koper fed Aleardi for a slight breakaway, and his shot beat Christopoulos stick side. The Everblades now led 3-2 with only 1:41 remaining on the clock.
Toledo Head Coach Dan Watson called a timeout after the third consecutive Florida goal. Christopoulos was pulled but couldn’t get off the ice until there was less than a minute remaining. The Walleye were not able to score another and fell 3-2.
Both goaltenders were stellar in game one, with each making several spectacular saves throughout the game. Christopoulos finished the game with 37 saves, including a breakaway attempt by Florida’s Joe Pendenza. Johnson had 33 saves on the night, most notably his third period save on Berry in close, in which he was sprawled face-down on the ice and held the puck between his legs to keep the Everblades within striking distance.
The Everblades lead the series 1-0. The teams face off once again Saturday night at Huntington Center before heading to Estero, Florida for games three, four, and five (if needed).
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