READING, Pa. – Ever since the Reading Royals came into existence back in 2001, dreams of an ECHL championship were always in the forefront of people’s minds when the team played in front of sellout crowds those first couple of seasons. Like buying a new car, that new car smell was the norm those first few seasons. Eventually the fans slowly but surely faded away from the arena, but the Royals were never far away from their hearts.
In game one of the Kelly Cup Finals here in Reading, Pa, that new car smell was back. The arena was darn near full and what made coming to the arena great back in the early days, was back and better than ever. The Royals missed the playoffs their first two seasons, then making the playoffs became the norm rather than the exception. Now, the Royals have what every Royals fan have wanted since day one: A team with a very realistic chance of winning the Kelly Cup. After game one, that dream just might become a reality.
In one of the most entertaining hockey games I’ve seen on any professional or amateur level, the Royals won a fantastic game at the Sovereign Center 6-5. This was two heavyweights slugging it out for almost 70 minutes. One team would land a hard jab, the other quickly returned with an uppercut. The other came back with a hard shot to the abs, and the war was on. This was playoff hockey at its best.
Both teams entered the third period 2-2. That is where the fun truly began after two solid first periods. Stockton took the lead on a controversial goal when Matt Reber scored for Stockton at 6:27 into the third period, when his stick hit the puck below the crossbar, but did so while he and another teammate ran over Royals goaltender Riley Gill. The referee emphatically called it a goal and the Royals bench went ballistic. Talk about a wake-up call.
The Royals looked like a different team hitting everything in sight and gave the Thunder a wake-up call of their own, scoring at 1:49 when Yannick Tifu, the early candidate for playoff MVP, scored on a blast from the left circle to retie the game at 3-3. The Royals took their third lead of the game 4:42 later, thanks to Nikita Kashirsky, who has become Mr. Clutch come playoff time, slammed the puck home between Olivier Roy’s pads for a 4-3 lead.
Stockton, however, is showing hockey fans on the east coast in part why they are in the Kelly Cup Finals. The Thunder struck back when Nathan Deck roofed a shot high glove side only 18 seconds after Kashirsky, to tie the game at 4-4. The Royals thought they had the game winner with only 47.5 seconds remaining in the game, on the power play thanks to Alex Berry who’s resilience to get the puck into the net paid off after several attempts in front of the Stockton net.
The problem is that the game was not over yet. The Royals still had 47.5 seconds left to play. With the goalie pulled, Ryan Hayes deflected Andrew Clark’s shot from the point and the crowed moaned in agony with the game now tied at 5-5. Six goals in the third period. Needless to say it wasn’t boring. Sudden death overtime loomed.
Thankfully for Royals fans, this is not your dads Reading Royals, even if they played like it at times. Fortunately for Royals fans Kashirsky plays for the Royals these days. Tifu took the puck into the Stockton zone and Kashirsky finished what Tifu started, going around the net, did a 360, and fired a high shot passed Roy for the game winner and set off a terrific celebration.
Oh, and that’s only game one. Reading has lived off of great goaltending all playoffs long. Gill, like Roy, struggled after playing great all playoffs long. Both coaches will have to reconsider changing goalies after game one. Gill made 25 saves on 30 shots while Roy made 43 of 49. Both teams scored once on the power play.
Need some time to catch your breath after that? Nah, game two is Sunday afternoon in Reading. The series will shift to Stockton for games 3-5 starting on Tuesday. They say that there is no rest for the weary. That’s okay, after game one, who wants to wait to see how this seven round bound ends.
Contact the author at Brian.Jennings@prohockeynews.com