ESTERO, Fla. – Winning playoff hockey is an equal mix of tight defense, clutch goaltending, opportunistic offense and a little bit of luck. It also helps to be peaking at the right time.
The Florida Everblades began their defense of the franchise’s 2012 Kelly Cup championship Friday night with a solid 5-1 victory over the Elmira Jackals in front of an announced crowd of 3,152 at the Germain Arena. Mike Merrifield and David Rutherford led the way with a goal and an assist apiece in support of Jesse Deckert’s near-perfect performance in net for the Everblades. Game two of the best-of-seven Eastern conference quarterfinal series will be played Saturday night in Estero.
The last time the two teams had met was way back in November during a two-game series in southwest Florida that the Everblades swept. That plus the fact that Florida had taken out the Jackals in the conference semifinals last April was more than enough incentive for Elmira to stage a game one upset. On the other side of the ice, Florida went into the contest having won seven of its last ten games as well as having both the player (Mathieu Roy) and goalie (Deckert) of the week for the final week of the regular season.
Playing on the road, the Jackals took the play to the Everblades in the early going. By the time the first period was seven minutes old, Elmira had nine shots on net to Florida’s one. The visitors also had a hit post to their credit thanks to Jean Bourbeau beating Deckert with a shot that caught the iron and stayed out.
With Deckert holding the fort, the Everblades fed off of their netminder’s effort and got on the board first. It came at the 7:45 mark when defenseman Mike Ratchuk went below the goal line to get the puck. He fed a perfect pass to Roy who beat Elmira goalie Maxime Clermont between the legs for the game-opening tally.
The lead grew to two seven minutes later when Brandon MacLean, last year’s Kelly Cup hero, slipped the pick to Merrifield. Merrifield put the puck on net where Clermont got a piece of it but the puck’s momentum allowed it to trickle across the goal line for the score.
As the period headed toward its end, the Jackals needed a spark to rekindle the effort from the opening minutes. They got just that when Louie Caporusso made a pretty no-look backhand pass to defenseman Kyle Bushee who had jumped up into the play. Bushee was able to jam the puck past Deckert, trimming the Everblades’ lead to 2-1 heading into the intermission.
Throughout the opening stanza, play had been physical bordering on chippy. Things continued that way in the second with neither side wanting to push it over the edge. With both defenses clamping down on scoring chances, both goalies settled in for what looked like a nail biter of a game.
Florida took advantage of a late period penalty to Elmira’s Jordan Pietrus to restore its two-goal lead. On the power play with less than a minute remaining before the break, Adam Brace took a shot at the Jackals net from the sideboards. The puck hit a defenseman’s stick in front and redirected past Clermont with just 17.2 seconds left to give the Everblades a 3-1 margin.
Elmira controlled the shot clock for much of the final stanza but they never could find a way to penetrate Deckert’s armor. Midway through the period, Rutherford notched the Everblades’ second man advantage goal of the game. After taking a pass from Maury Edwards, Rutherford danced his way through a couple of defenders and roofed a shot to the top corner on Clermont’s glove side.
Florida finished off the scoring with just under five minutes left in regulation. Merrifield and A.J. Jenks broke out on an odd-man rush. Merrifield waited until the last moment to slide a pass across the slot to Jenks who put a backhander into the back of the net.
Wanting to send a message for Saturday’s game two, the Jackals ramped up the physical play in the waning minutes. It led to a brouhaha with 3.1 ticks left on the clock that saw four Jackals and three Everblades head to the penalty box. On the ensuing face-off, Florida’s Tyson Gimblett and Elmira’s Kevin Harvey dropped the gloves for a battle that could carry over.
Deckert finished the game with 29 saves to pick up the win while Clermont stopped 23 in the loss. Game time for Saturday’s game two is 7:05 p.m.
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