The Florida Everblades go straight from the regular season into the postseason on Monday evening.
Less than 48 hours after beating the Orlando Solar Bears and winning the ECHL’s Brabham Cup for highest odds, the Blades open their best-of-5 semi-finals in the Eastern Conference in South Carolina at 7:05 a.m. On a practice track.
“It is what it is,” said Blades trainer Brad Ralph on Sunday. “We have to find a way. It’s a best of 5, so you really have to win on the road no matter what. We have two options here on Monday and Wednesday to get one of those road wins.
“There are no excuses. Whether on a training track or not, we have to find a way to make it happen.”
That’s exactly what the Blades did against the Stingrays this season. Florida is 10-1-1-1 against South Carolina with the only regular first-game loss, 5-1, at the Hertz Arena on January 29th.
In their next nine meetings, through March 12, the Blades won all but one and lost in a shootout on February 27.
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But the teams played nearly two months gone, and South Carolina won on May 5 in extra time lost on May 7 in the extension and left on May 8, a 3: 2-fall decision.
And the Stingrays are hot, winning 10 of the last 13 and taking fourth place in the Eastern Conference, just ahead of Orlando and Jacksonville.
“We played them a little more at the beginning of the season than we played really well,” said Ralph. “They started playing well later in the season. They are as talented a team as they are in this league. I think they are starting to bring it all together.
“If you asked our players, they would say that our record against them is irrelevant. These are playoffs. They have a lot of players with serious experience and skills. It will be a great series.”
Florida had three main phases of the season. Due to the late start of the top leagues such as the AHL and NHL, the Blades were filled in the first weeks of the season with top prospects from NHL daughter Nashville.
Tanner Jeannot started the season with the Blades and ended up playing 15 regular season games and 5 Stanley Cup playoff games with the Predators.
Goalkeeper Cam Johnson started with a sizzling 6-1 with 1.77 goals against the average and then signed with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, despite not playing for the team for the rest of the season.
Devin Cooley stood in for Johnson and played well enough to be called up to the Predators’ taxi group after injuring starter Juuse Saros.
Towards the end of the regular season, the players were then called up for playoff runs in this league in the AHL. And the blades had a 10-day hiatus in late April due to a positive COVID-19 test.
“It’s been a challenging year,” said Ralph.
When the All-ECHL team was fired late last week, Florida captain John McCarron and goalkeeper Jake Hildebrand were there.
And they were appropriate choices.
McCarron had his best offensive in his fifth season with the Blades, scoring 31 goals and adding 37 assists for 68 points, his most during his tenure. The 31 goals were the most in the league, and 68 points finished third.
“On the offensive, this was probably his best year of his career with us,” said Ralph. “Just a dominant force. He eats minutes and produces in all the big moments this year. He’s the guy who continues to lead this team to success.”
Hildebrand, 27, was signed up on January 13 after Cooley was called up. He hadn’t played for ECHL’s Kalamazoo since last season.
He stepped in and rose and won Goalkeeper of the Month in February when he won with a 4-0-2 with 2.04 goals against the average and a savings rate of 0.933.
And he finished the regular season 23-10-2-3 with an average of 2.40 goals in fourth place in the league.
Ralph has credited goalkeeping coach Josh Robinson.
“We were so lucky – Josh Robinson not only identified Jake, he worked with him and helped develop his career and made Jake an elite goalkeeper in the league,” said Ralph. “He put a lot of hard work into it. He’s such a great person.”
Brabham Cup, then Kelly Cup?
The Blades won for the fourth time in its history, the Brabham Cup with a 4: 3 win in Orlando on Saturday after they had lost in their home finale against Greenville in extra time on Friday.
“We wanted to win the Brabham Cup,” said Ralph. “Our players definitely deserve it. It’s nice to be rewarded. It’s been a long regular season.”
However, Ralph wouldn’t compromise that his players were ready for the quick turnaround. He spared McCarron, top scorer Myles Powell (43 points in 46 games) and Hildebrand in Orlando.
“We wanted to win (the Brabham Cup), but it wasn’t at any cost,” said Ralph. “We had the big picture in mind.”
And this bigger picture comes into focus on Monday evening.
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at email@example.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/
Kelly Cup Playoffs
Eastern Conference semifinals
Best of five series
Monday – Game 1, in South Carolina, 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday – Game 2, South Carolina, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday – Game 3, in Florida, 7 p.m.
Sunday – Game 4, if necessary, in Florida at 6 p.m.
Monday – Game 5, if necessary, in Florida at 7:30 p.m.