ESTERO, Fla. – The Newfoundland Growlers and Florida Everblades opened their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final in Estero Friday night. Despite being the top team in the East, the Growlers put up a lackluster performance in the opening game, unable to provide much offense—or defense—in their loss to the seventh-seeded Everblades. The underdogs profited from a quick start, then from a dominant second half, as they went on to defeat the Growlers 6-2.
For the 29th time this postseason, the game’s first goal came less than five minutes in. Blake Winiecki shocked Newfoundland only 3:29 into the opening period when he came from behind the net with the puck and let it rip from the faceoff circle. It hit just under the crossbar and came back out so quickly, the Growlers didn’t even realize what had happened until the referee signaled a goal.
The Growlers seemed to get their wits about them and were able to kill off six minutes of nearly consecutive penalties later in the stanza. Keenan Suthers served his tripping penalty, then 27 seconds later Mikko Kokkonen got his stick up high on Kody McDonald and headed off for four minutes. The successful penalty kill should have given Newfoundland some momentum to finish out the opening frame. Instead, they gave up another goal. Will Calverley brought the puck into the offensive zone and passed it across to Tyler Irvine to tap into the net, and the Everblades were up 2-0 heading into the second period.
The Growlers came out buzzing for the middle frame. It took all of ten seconds for Newfoundland to capitalize on a power play opportunity given when John McCarron flipped the puck up and over the glass. In his first game back after suffering an injury in game five of the division semifinals, alternate captain Zach O’Brien set up Orrin Centazzo to cut the lead in half.
🚨 GOAL 🚨
OC PP SNIPE 🚀#STANDPROUD pic.twitter.com/GVEYPnlzLy
— z – Newfoundland Growlers (@NLGrowlers) May 20, 2023
A little over two minutes later, Tommy Miller intercepted a pass from Florida’s Oliver Chau and gave it to Suthers, who walked right in on goaltender Cam Johnson to tie it up. Suddenly it was Newfoundland with all the momentum.
It wouldn’t last, however. In the latter half of the second, the Everblades came alive for a trio of goals. Winiecki passed the puck to captain Ben Masella at the blue line. His slapshot through traffic beat Newfoundland netminder Dryden McKay to take back the lead. A few minutes later Masella returned the favor and assisted on Winiecki’s second goal of the night. The defenseman took a shot into traffic that Winiecki was able to deflect past McKay. Calverley further extended Florida’s lead 45 seconds later when his shot went between defender Matt Hellickson‘s legs and into the net.
🚨 ANOTHA ONE 🚨@wcalverley8 gets the blades to 5 ✋ pic.twitter.com/tPDPOXIPpu
— x – Florida Everblades (@FL_Everblades) May 20, 2023
Down 5-2 heading into the final frame, the Growlers needed a boost. It could have come in the form of a goaltending change, or even a fight, something to get the team motivated for the comeback they would need to mount in the final 20 minutes. None of that happened. What did happen was an early slashing penalty courtesy of Zach Solow, just back from his stint with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League. Later in the period, Hellickson and Jonny Tychonick gave the Everblades a 5-on-3 when they took penalties just over a minute apart. Although Newfoundland killed all three of those penalties, they prevented the Growlers from getting back in the game.
Logan Lambdin added an empty-netter with just under a minute remaining to seal the 6-2 victory for Florida.
By the end of the night, Newfoundland had only put up 19 shots, far less than what is needed to win games at this point in the postseason. In contrast, Florida had 27.
Six skaters had a multi-point game, all of them Everblades. Winiecki finished with two goals and although he wasn’t initially credited, he should ultimately receive a helper on Masella’s goal. Both Masella and Calverley had a goal and assist. McCarron, Stefan Leblanc, and Lukas Kälble were all credited with two assists.
The teams face off for game two Saturday evening in Estero. Game three, also in Florida, will take place Monday. The series will then shift to St. John’s for game four Thursday, and if needed, games five through seven next week.
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