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2022 Kelly Cup Playoffs

Tight Defensive Effort Launch Florida over Toledo

Tight Defensive Effort Launch Florida over Toledo

TOLEDO, Ohio — The Florida Everblades’ defensive-first style proved to be too much for the high-scoring skaters from the Toledo Walleye, claiming a 2-0 series lead in the Kelly Cup Finals Saturday night.

A Toledo squad that’s looked poised, cool, and dominant all postseason long now seems like a thing of the past. This Everblades roster is pushing their buttons, frustrating both on and off the clock. This pushed Toledo away from their game and limited scoresheet appearances, resulting in a 3-1 loss in front of a capacity crowd at the Huntington Center.

First Period

It was a fast start with Toledo trying to gain the early momentum. There was an immediate penalty call against Toledo on the first rush up the ice. Just 18 seconds in, Blake Hillman was given a four-minute double minor for high-sticking.

After a battle for the puck off the faceoff, Brett Boeing and Marcus Vela combined for an instant shorthanded rush up the ice, crashing into Everblades netminder Cam Johnson, sending the puck (and Johnson) spiraling into the net. Vela had the original shot, which Johnson covered, and then Boeing followed up with a late push. After a review, the goal was waved off.

At 3:30 of the first, Florida took the 1-0 lead while 4-on-4. They jumped on their bikes, cycling around the ice. Dylan Vander Esch saucered the puck down to the blue line to a waiting Xavier Bouchard. He found a lane and set the puck down towards Toledo goalie Billy Christopoulos, where it was tipped into the net by Levko Koper.

The story of this game was the officiating. Both the hometown crowd and Walleye head coach Dan Watson took issue with the officiating early and often on Saturday. Watson shared his thoughts on that postgame:

“They are overlooking a lot of things,” Watson said. “We have to focus on us and what we need to do to win a hockey game and try to leave the distractions with what’s happening after whistles and through the whistles that aren’t part of the game and let that be and just play our game.”

Florida’s penalty-killing unit was strong on the pressure all night. In fact, that pressure is what put them up 2-0 at 12:19. Vander Esch forced a turnover in the neutral zone, keeping enough pressure to get loose from Josh Dickinson and head up ice with Joe Pendenza. A couple of give-and-gos later, the puck was resting in the back of the net. That effort would prove to be the game-winner.

That’s when the mind games went into high gear. After the goal, Vander Esch hit the glass with his hands, eyed down the fans behind the Walleye net, raised his arms, and gave a “come here” motion with his hands.

“It’s a mental game and our guys have to be mentally tougher and manage those emotions. It’s hard. There is a lot on the line here. There is a lot [at stake] here. We want to win just as badly as they do. We have to play our game and worry about us and nothing else.” – Watson

Patrick Curry had an excellent chance to make it a one-goal game, but Johnson stopped him on a quick solo breakaway late in the first.

Second Period

It’s the finals. Of course, it’s expected that the refs will let things go. Florida played to that perfectly, using every uncalled slash, hit, cross-check, high-stick, and more to their advantage. They aren’t afraid to mix it up and play a tough, hard-to-handle brand of playoff hockey. The lack of calls continued to frustrate the Toledo bench in the second period:

“They’ve been playing that way all series long. They have the refs in their palm. That is what it feels like. It feels like that for everybody. We were told that prior to the series that the refs are on their side for whatever reason.”- Watson

Early in the period, Johnson took two heavy whacks of his stick against Toledo forward John Albert. Much to the crowd’s anger, the infraction was pointed at by a referee, but no call was made.

Then, with a long stretch of play without a whistle, Christopoulos’ net came off the moorings. Standard whistle. No problem. Just reset and move on, right? Wrong.

After the whistle, Florida’s Darik Angeli elbow-checked Randy Gazzola. From that point, Angeli didn’t engage, letting his linemates finish up the dirty work as an almost line brawl ensued.

At one point, even the goaltenders approached center ice, observing and standing at the ready. After all was sorted out, the Everblades were awarded a power play. Gazzola was called for cross-checking and roughing, while Butrus Ghafari also was called for roughing. For Florida, Jake McLaughlin and Xavier Bouchard each received roughing minors. After starting the melee, Florida came out on top with the man advantage.

Toledo killed off the power play, with Christopoulos making three saves. A few seconds later, Toledo had their best chance of the period, though Johnson made the save on Dickinson.

A few minutes after that, Florida got another power play, which led to a dominant 3-0 lead. Zach Solow tipped home a Stefan Leblanc lazer past Christopoulos at 15:52. The jeers and boos rained down from the hometown Walleye faithful.

Curry and Hillman finished up the period with a couple of chances on Johnson. With the horn sounding, that took the Walleye to four consecutive periods without a goal.

Third Period

The pressure was squarely on the shoulders of the Walleye, with the fans in fine voice trying to urge them to a goal.

A little over five minutes in the period, Florida went on its fifth power play of the night. Toledo’s PK units got back to their early-game dominance, only allowing one shot. TJ Hensick appeared prime to tie the game on a solo, shorthanded chance but could not solve Johnson.

With seven shots in the first 8:55 and five in 43 seconds proceeding the goal, Toledo finally awarded their legion. Not surprisingly, Hillman and Vela teamed up, with Vela on the deflection. Albert was also right there for a double-screen. This goal happened because of net-front presence and standing their ground in front of Johnson. Whether they like it or not, that’s mainly how you get goals in the playoffs.

Toledo would get two power-play opportunities in the back half of the period, though they could not tie this one up. In total, the Walleye racked up 15 shots in the third period, which equaled their total from the first two periods combined.

Rising agitation, fine opposition goaltending, and a lack of time were the unideal equation that led to a 3-1 final.

As the horn signaled the end of this physical and chippy game, the Everblades, led by Johnson, turned to the crowd, held their palms to their ears, and raised their arms to egg on the opposition crowd. This celebration was not received well by the fans or the Walleye. As the Everblades continued celebrating, most of the Walleye stayed on the ice, staring daggers and more.

“We all saw it. It’s noted,” Vela commented postgame.

Once the Everblades cleared the ice, the Walleye took to center ice to salute the capacity crowd.

In the loss, Christopoulos made 18 saves on 21 shots. This was his 18th straight start. Florida netminder Cam Johnson finished with 29 saves in the win. He now has a 13-1-1 record, securing the league lead in playoff wins.

Thoughts

Florida’s goals were purely opportunistic. It wasn’t because they had sustained zone pressure or anything like that. They saw a breakdown and pounced. Toledo needs to clean up their game and simplify it if they want to claw back into this series. Just get back to their game. Simple as that. Toledo seems to be trying to put on a show for their fans, trying to get the highlight plays. That lack of structure has left too many opportunities to be exploited. Now, I’m not saying they were irresponsible, not up to the task, or anything like that. They simply need to return to the style that helped them win the Henry Brabham Cup. They returned to that style for a time in the third and were rewarded. Now to keep going.

Johnson has been spectacular all postseason long. This series has been no exception. It’s been an up and down season for him as he’s spent time with the surging Everblades and the struggling AHL Cleveland Monsters.

While game 3 isn’t a mathematical “must-win,” it’s an emotional and mental must-win. Toledo, which won 10 of 11 games coming into the series, needs to carry four of the next five games to win the Kelly Cup.

Quote of the Night

“There is plenty of confidence. We know what we have in that room. We’ve seen ourselves be successful with our backs against the wall. We’re looking forward to going down there and getting some wins. And then coming back here and finishing the series off.” – Curry

Up Next

The series moves to Hertz Arena in Estero, Fla. for Games 3 and 4, and Game 5 if necessary. These games will be played on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Download the Field Pass Hockey app from the iTunes or Google Play stores or follow @FieldPassHockey on Twitter for the latest news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL throughout the 2021 season!

    Deana Weinheimer covers the Cleveland Monsters for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with her on Twitter @FPHMonsters.

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