Saturday, 9 June 2018

Fly Like An Eagle

The Colorado Eagles and Florida Everblades met in Game Seven of the Kelly Cup Final last night to determine who would be the ECHL champions for this season. The Eagles entered the game as the reigning Kelly Cup champions, so there was a lot on the line as they looked to defend their title. They also have the distinction of playing in their final ECHL game as the franchise is being elevated to the AHL level next season as the AHL affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche. The Everblades won the Kelly Cup once before in 2011-12, so they were looking to write a new chapter into their history. Only one could prevail, and the lede photo and the title of this article should tell you who rose above the other in this Game Seven of the Kelly Cup Championship!

The Eagles, based in Loveland, Colorado, haven't been around the ECHL's membership for decades like some teams. They started in the Central Hockey League in 2003 where they won a CHL championship in 2004-05 and in 2006-07 before being accepted into the ECHL as an expansion team in 2011, winning the Kelly Cup last season for the first time. They were affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets from 2011-13, the Calgary Flames in the 2014-15 season, and have been affiliated with the Avalanche since 2016. There's your brief history on Colorado's brief history thus far!

This year's squad has shown that they're no stranger to adversity, winning the final two series of the playoffs in Game-Seven situations. They needed all seven games to oust the Fort Wayne Komets who tied the series after being down 3-2 with a 3-2 win on the road in Colorado before the Eagles closed out the series on home ice with a 4-3 win in overtime in Game Seven. That's about as close as a team can get to going home, but Ryan Olsen prevented that from happening as the defending champs moved on with his goal at 10:34 of the extra period on the power-play.

In the Kelly Cup Final, the Florida Everblades gave the Colorado Eagles everything they could handle. The Eagles found themselves in a 3-2 hole heading home on Wednesday where they laid down a 4-2 win on the strength of a pair of Michael Joly goals. It should have been a 4-1 win with Joly's second goal finding the empty net, but a late Florida goal made the game closer than it appeared. After surviving that game, they traveled back to Florida for Game Seven where it was winner-takes-all in the final ECHL game of the season!

"One game to win a championship," Eagles head coach Aaron Schneekloth told Loveland Reporter-Herald's Cris Tiller. "We'll take it."

A crowd of 7701 fans packed Florida's Germain Arena for the final game, and they were treated to an excellent game between two talented teams. The home crowd got into the game early when Spencer Smallman broke into the Colorado zone, curled towards the net, and unleashed a howitzer that beat Joe Cannata to put the Everblades up 1-0! Florida continued to play some dizzying hockey through the last half of the period and almost scored a second goal late during a goalmouth scramble, but they'd go to the intermission up 1-0 and leading 12-9 in shots!

The second period saw the two teams trade chances, but it would the Eagles who found the back of the net. Michael Joly picked off an errant pass and was off to the races from his own end. He went to the backhand and shelved a shot past Martin Ouellette with 5:41 remaining in the middle frame. It seemed as though the Everblades had taken the lead late in the period when Michael Kirkpatrick appeared to roof the puck behind Cannata just under the bar, but the goal was waved off by the official. The goal judge had signaled a goal, but it was determined that the knob of Cannata's stick was what everyone had seen, and the officials moved on. The two teams would fire nine shots apiece at the opposing goaltenders, but it was Colorado who scored the all-important tying goal to send this game into the second intermission at 1-1.

As a note, the ECHL does not use video replay for its officials, so, with there being a reason to check the tape in a Game Seven of the Kelly Cup Championship, the fact that there is no tape to check is rather astounding to me. In this day and age, professional hockey seems to have video replay everywhere, but the ECHL does not. As several of the players and coaches stated after the game, this needs to be rectified starting next season so that there are no debates over what is and isn't a good goal. I am in agreement, especially when it came to a play of this magnitude, but I digress.

The third period saw Florida get the break they needed when a three-on-one for Eagles was turned into a two-on-one the other way after Everblades defenceman Matt Mackenzie broke up a pass right on Ouellette's doorstep. Mackenzie threw the outlet pass up to Sam Warning who, with John McCarron, fed McCarron with a cross-ice pass, and McCarron's shot beat a sliding Cannata for the 2-1 lead at 6:15. The Eagles would respond five minutes later when Travis Barron picked off an unsuccessful clearing attempt by the Everblades, and he stepped into the face-off circle and zipped a shot past Ouellette on the short-side at 10:45 to knot this game up at 2-2.

Michael Joly, who was a key cog in the Eagles' offence this postseason, drew a holding penalty with his speed at the 14:53 mark when Derek Sheppard illegally slowed him up, but Joly made an almost-incomprehensible mistake less than a minute later. After being called for an offside while on the power-play, Joly slammed his stick so hard down onto the ice that he snapped the twig into two pieces. The officials would have none of that behavior and assessed him a slashing penalty for his indiscretion - a correct call by the rule book - and sent him off for two minutes, negating the Colorado power-play and eventually guaranteeing Florida a 42-second power-play at the end of Sheppard's time-out. Boneheaded? I'd say yes.

Joly, however, was bailed out by his teammates as they not only killed off the short power-play, but actually took the lead! Defenceman Gabriel Verpaelst fired a wrist shot from the left-side circle after receiving a pass as the trailer on a three-on-two, and Verpaelst's shorthanded goal at 17:31 silenced the stunned crowd at Germain Arena. According to Sean Star of the Loveland Reporter-Herald,
Verpaelst skated to center ice with his both hands on his head, falling to one knee in disbelief. He then turned around and rose to both feet, swarmed by his three other teammates on the ice for celebratory bear hug.
Not bad for a defenceman who was never drafted and has played for five different ECHL teams over the last four seasons! Joe Cannata held the Everblades off the scoresheet for the final 2:39 of the game, and the Eagles captured their second-straight Kelly Cup and, possibly, the last one in their history as they'll move to the AHL for next season. Michael Joly was named as the Most Valuable Player of the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs, racking up 29 points — 13 goals and 16 assists — in just 24 games, including four goals and five assists in the Kelly Cup Final.

The Eagles will go out as champions in the ECHL, and there will be a new Kelly Cup champion next season. It's been a great run for Colorado, but the real work begins as they move up a level to the AHL. Can they keep the magic rolling? We'll know next season! Congratulations to the 2018 ECHL Kelly Cup Champions in the Colorado Eagles!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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