READING, Pa. – The Newfoundland Growlers and Reading Royals began their best-of-seven North Division Final Saturday in Reading. The Growlers started the series off on the right foot, and it was due in large part to Dryden McKay. The rookie netminder stopped 30 shots on his way to his second pro playoff shutout, and Newfoundland took game one 3-0.
It took only three and a half minutes for the Growlers to show why they are the top team in the East. Isaac Johnson skated into the Reading zone and backhanded the puck to Jack Badini, who shoveled it back to him in the corner. Johnson then found Keenan Suthers skating in on Pat Nagle, who didn’t even see him until it was too late. Suthers threw the puck into the net for the early lead.
🚨 GOAL 🚨
STAY HOT SUDZY 🔥#STANDPROUD pic.twitter.com/P2Orxz3LzQ
— z – Newfoundland Growlers (@NLGrowlers) May 6, 2023
It was a tough break for the Royals, who have become accustomed to their own early leads in this postseason. In their six-game series with the Maine Mariners, the Royals scored first, and within the opening minutes, in five of those games. They won four of those contests and dropped another in overtime.
Both teams were buzzing throughout the remainder of the opening period, with plenty of action at both ends. The score could have been 3-2 if not for the men between the pipes, but after that initial goal, both McKay and Nagle were perfect until the third period.
Reading started to fall apart defensively early in the second when, not one, not two, but three Royals allowed Pavel Gogolev to walk in on Nagle. Midway through the period, Zach Solow was allowed to walk in unscathed. Moments later defenseman Matt Hellickson was allowed to circle the net—not once, but twice—untouched. Late in the period, Johnson was left wide open following an odd-man rush. Defensive lapses such as these allowed the Growlers far too many opportunities in the Reading zone, especially since the Royals were not burying the few chances they had at the other end.
The Royals’ defensive woes continued into the third period. Nagle had been able to bail out his team throughout the middle frame, but after close to a full 40-minute lull in scoring, the Growlers could no longer be held off.
It was Johnson who came through for the Growlers, battling with a pair of Royals in his own zone before gaining possession of the puck and heading all the way down the ice with it. He skated right between defenders Garrett McFadden and Mason Millman to beat Nagle for the 2-0 lead.
🚨 GOAL 🚨
JUST NASTY FROM JOHNNY 🥵#STANDPROUD pic.twitter.com/By74m7OYuR
— z – Newfoundland Growlers (@NLGrowlers) May 7, 2023
The Royals showed some desperation late in the third, with several offensive zone flurries in the dying minutes, but McKay was in his element and didn’t allow anything to get past him. Nagel may have been the goaltender with 85 ECHL playoff games under his belt, but McKay was looking like a veteran as well in those final minutes, all but standing on his head to make the saves necessary to preserve the Growlers’ victory and his shutout.
With only 1:35 remaining, and with Nagle pulled for an extra attacker, Orrin Centazzo raced Tyler Heidt for a loose puck in Reading’s zone. Centazzo won the race and put the puck into the empty net to seal the 3-0 victory and the 1-0 series lead.
The Growlers and Royals face off in Reading again Sunday afternoon for game two. Game three is scheduled for Tuesday, also in Reading. Wednesday will be a travel day for both teams, then the series will resume in St. John’s Thursday. If needed, games five through seven will be May 13, 15, and 16, also in St. John’s.
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