ESTERO, Fla. – This year’s Eastern Conference Final will feature the southernmost versus northernmost teams in the league squaring off. Despite the geographic distance separating the sides, they are far more familiar to each other than you would expect.
With the Toronto Maple Leafs switching its affiliation from the Orlando Solar Bears to the Growlers this past season, the Newfoundland roster has many players who made Orlando their home in 2018-19. Also, the Growlers’ head coach John Snowden was the associate coach for the Solar Bears last year.
The series will feature one of the league’s perennial contenders facing a newcomer. The Everblades still feel the bitterness of losing in the Kelly Cup Finals to the Colorado Eagles last year, and they are looking to take care of unfinished business. Meanwhile, the Growlers want to show everyone that their season is no fluke and that St John’s has returned as an epicenter of young professional hockey talent.
Final Regular Season Records:
Florida Everblades: 50-16-5-1, 106 pts; South Division and Eastern Conference regular season champs
Newfoundland Growlers: 43-21-4-4, 94 pts; North Division champs and 2nd in Eastern Conference
Series Schedule (Home team in BOLD CAPS and all times local):
Game 1 – May 10 – Newfoundland at FLORIDA 7:30 PM EDT
Game 2 – May 11 – Newfoundland at FLORIDA 7:00 PM EDT
Game 3 – May 15 – Florida at NEWFOUNDLAND 7:00 PM NDT
Game 4 – May 17 – Florida at NEWFOUNDLAND 7:00 PM NDT
* Game 5 – May 18 – Florida at NEWFOUNDLAND 7:00 PM NDT
* Game 6 – May 21 – Newfoundland at FLORIDA 7:30 PM EDT
* Game 7 – May 22 – Newfoundland at FLORIDA 7:30 PM EDT
*=> If Necessary
Season Series Recap:
The Everblades and Growlers only played each other twice at the beginning of the season, with the two teams splitting the games. Both games ended with a 3-2 score in what was the season-opening series for both teams at the Mile One Centre. The second game was a milestone victory for Florida’s head coach Brad Ralph as it was his 100th victory at the helm of the Everblades.
Paths to the Eastern Conference Final:
The Everblades lost the first game in the South Division Final to the Orlando Solar Bears, but they went on to win four straight games to clinch the season. The series was closer than it appears. Three of those games went to single overtime, and the last one went to double overtime.
The Florida Everblades are a team that has shown time and time again to have nearly perfect chemistry, despite the numerous roster changes that occur from year to year and in the middle of the season. This year, the Everblades are anchored by goaltender Callum Booth, who leads the league in the playoffs with a sizzling .96 save percentage and a 1.14 goals against average. A stingy defensive system has helped him.
The Everblades have scored 34 goals in the playoffs while allowing only 19 goals against. That differential should be concerning to the Growlers who have nearly paced the Everblades in the goals for category with 33, but have allowed 31 goals. The Everblades’ overtime record is 4-1, so expect them to be tough if any games go down to the wire.
The Growlers took the North Division Final over the Manchester Monarchs, and they showed plenty of resilience. After a double overtime loss on May 3, the Growlers roared back on May 6 with a three-goal first period. They had the Monarch on the ropes from the opening puck drop and clinched the series with a decisive 5-1 victory.
The Growlers offense has been powered by Zach O’Brien who is third in the playoff scoring with 18 points and 10 goals. And then there is the high octane rookie brigade. Florida’s Blake Winiecki may lead the league’s rookies with eight goals, but the Growlers have a virtual squadron of rookies lighting the lamp. Brady Ferguson, Marcus Power, Giorgio Estephan, and Scott Pooley are among the top nine rookie scorers in the league during the playoffs.
Here are some additional stats:
Florida Everblades Keys to Success:
The Growlers are 5-0 in the playoffs when scoring first, which shows that it would be in the Everblades’ best interests to open the game keeping players like O’Brien in check. While it is true that Booth has been quite stable in goal for the Everblades, he has been backed in a big way by his team. If the rest of the team can continue to help Booth with defense while simultaneously matching Newfoundland’s offense, this series should be in the bag for Florida.
For scoring output, the Everblades will be looking for rookie sensation Winiecki to remain hot. He is currently fourth in the league in goals. Seasoned forward John McCarron has remained a constant threat, and you can also expect Justin Auger to be active in the offensive zone.
Testifying to the team’s commitment to two-way play, Florida continues to get scoring out if its blueliners. Ben Masella leads all defensemen with 10 points, while Matt Finn is tied for second with nine. If Florida keeps up with its systematic approach and its crushing forecheck, Newfoundland will find it challenging to get traction.
Newfoundland Growlers Keys to Success:
The Growlers need O’Brien to stay hot, and for that to happen, they will be looking for other offensive threats like Power and Ferguson to keep the Everblades’ defense honest and occupied.
Newfoundland should expect an aggressive forecheck from the Everblades, and they will find breakaway opportunities to be scarce. The only reliable way to beat Florida is to put traffic in front of the net and put shots on the goal. Booth has been stellar in the playoffs, but a good part of his success is a result of his defense backing him up when he is out of position and clearing away the puck after rebounds.
The power play is going to be critical for the Growlers, who are currently fourth in the ECHL with a 24.5% conversion rate on the man-advantage. Looking for dirty goals off of rebounds and finding redirection opportunities is the way to get past Booth.
The Growlers will also need to minimize turnovers and maintain puck control. The Everblades love to play a grinding, systematic game, and they lure teams into making sloppy offensive zone entries that usually result in quick takeaways, battles on the boards, and low percentage shot attempts.