2024 Florida Everblades vs Kansas City Mavericks

Everblades Look To Become First ECHL Team To Win Three Straight Cups

Everblades Look To Become First ECHL Team To Win Three Straight Cups

The Florida Everblades are trying to do something no team in ECHL history has done before – win three consecutive Kelly Cup championships.

May 30, 2024 by Justin Cohn
Everblades Look To Become First ECHL Team To Win Three Straight Cups

The Florida Everblades are trying to do something no team in ECHL history has done before – win three consecutive Kelly Cup championships – and Game 1 of the best-of-seven 2024 finals will be Friday against the Kansas City Mavericks at Cable Dahmer Arena in Independence, Missouri.

Since the ECHL first began awarding the Kelly Cup in 1997, there had only been two back-to-back Kelly Cup winners: the Allen Americans in 2015 and 2016 and the Colorado Eagles in 2017 and 2018. The Americans lost in the second round of the 2017 playoffs to Colorado, which never got a chance to attempt its three-peat in 2019 because it had left for the higher-level American Hockey League. (From 1989 to 1986, the ECHL awarded the Riley Cup; Toledo and Hampton Roads both won back-to-back titles but no one won three.)

I’m one of the few reporters in minor-league sports who have closely covered a team that has won three straight championships; the Fort Wayne Komets did it in the International Hockey League in 2008, 2009 and 2010, then added a Central Hockey League title in 2012. 

Maybe it’s apples and oranges – the IHL only had seven teams, with only two rounds of playoffs – but I saw up close what it took to pull off the trifecta, and I assure you what Florida is close to doing is incredible.

The Everblades maintain a nucleus of players who have won with them before, including goaltender Cam Johnson and forward Joe Pendenza, who were part of the 2022 and 2023 championship teams, and Oliver Chau, Logan Lambdin, Cole Moberg, Bobo Carpenter and Sean Josling, members of the 2023 Cup team. 

Keeping people motivated to repeat once (or twice) isn’t easy to begin with, but then you’ve got to tack on the inability to keep a squad together because almost everyone is on a one-year contract; the rigors of the ECHL season, where travel and scheduling can be downright crazy and the way NHL and AHL affiliates load or decimate ECHL lineups on the eve of the playoffs with call-ups and send-downs. 

Just being in the finals a third year in a row is impressive.

When the Komets won three in a row, they weren’t dealing with half of that stuff, and I thought it was nearly an impossible task they were pulling off. If Florida were to do it, well, that would be big news.

If you were to just look at this series on paper, you’d probably think the Mavericks were the overwhelming favorites. 

Kansas City had the ECHL’s best regular-season record (54-12-6) and has taken out some behemoths in the postseason, namely the Idaho Steelheads and Toledo Walleye. 

Florida had the eighth-best record (40-23-9) and had home-ice advantage in only the South Division finals against the Orlando Solar Bears, a five-game series. The other playoff wins came against the Jacksonville Icemen (in seven games) and the Adirondack Thunder (six games).

But you can throw out the stats in many respects when it comes to the Everblades. 

Their roster now is much different than the one they had in, say, February. They don’t always play pretty hockey, but it’s effective. And there’s just an aura about the Everblades, as there was last year when they upset opponents in each round to win the Kelly Cup.

How Did The Everblades Get Here?

Throughout the regular season, I never had the Everblades lower than 12th in the FloHockey rankings, even when they were falling out of playoff position at 20-14-6. I’d learned last season that coach Brad Ralph, who has this season reinforced the notion that he’s by far the best coach in the ECHL, plays the long game. He builds for the playoffs.

The Everblades lost a lot from last season, and it was going to take time, especially with the defensive corps that looked overwhelmed at times early. They play in the South Division, which most would argue is the ECHL’s toughest, certainly in the top two with the Central. And the Everblades were going to make moves near the trade deadline. Patience was warranted when it came to the Everblades.

They were led during the regular season by Chau’s 26 goals and 60 points, Pendenza’s 25 goals and 58 points, and Josling’s 22 goals and 55 points. Carpenter also had 28 goals and Lambdin 18.

The offense ended up ranking 17th (3.11 goals per game), but the real story was the defense that finished tops in the league with only 2.58 goals against per game. Granted, it helped that they played Atlanta and Savannah a total of 19 times, and good South Division teams like Greenville and Orlando didn’t score a lot of goals. And having Johnson on his game – 27-15-6 with a 2.21 goals against average, a .921 save percentage and four shutouts – was a huge factor, too. But it also speaks to the improvement of the team throughout the season.

Ralph’s best work may have come off the ice, at the trade deadline. He wove some magic in trades with Fort Wayne and the Cincinnati Cyclones, landing forward Matthew Wedman and defenseman Zach Berzolla. 

Wedman, who didn’t skate in the regular season with Florida, has four goals and 13 points in 18 playoff games. Berzolla has two assists in 18 games. 

To get the two top-line/pairing talents, Ralph didn’t have to give up much from his lineup in the short term – Kieran Craig, Luke Santerno, Jimmy Soper and Stanislav Demin – but the Everblades will be hit hard after the season, still owing future considerations Fort Wayne and Cincinnati.

Oh, and there also was the signing of Josh Ho-Sang, who was a first-round NHL draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2014. He’s looked way better than I’d expected after a season in the KHL. The forward had two goals and 15 points in 11 regular-season games. And in the playoffs, he has one goal and 14 points in 17 games, often manning the top line with Wedman and either Chau or Lambdin.

Florida’s playoff scoring has been led by Carpenter, with eight goals and 15 points, and nine players have at least 10 points. 

The one who’s really upped his game has been Mark Senden, a rookie forward, who has six goals and 11 points in 18 playoff games.   

What Needs To Happen Next For The Everblades?

The Everblades obviously are going to have to steal a road game or two, but they’ve shown they can do that; they were only 17-13-6 on the road during the regular season but have a 7-3 road record in these playoffs, and are 5-3 at Hertz Arena, after winning all four series last year without home ice advantage. 

By comparison, the Mavericks are 5-2 at home and 7-1 on the road in the playoffs, so maybe home-ice advantage isn’t such a big thing in this series.

If you watched the two conference finals, you probably came away thinking the Mavericks had the much tougher test with Toledo than Florida did with Adirondack. You wouldn’t be wrong. By comparison, the Eastern Conference finals was just uglier hockey. 

Florida’s most impressive win probably came in the first round against Jacksonville, my preseason pick to win the Cup and who I thought would win that series.

But Florida has developed a blue-collar mentality throughout these playoffs. 

The Everblades will grind you out, be physical, and a lot of the elements that have made Florida successful, such as playing the body and blocking shots, are going to come in handy against Kansas City. The Mavericks haven’t been tested physically much in these playoffs.

Johnson is the best big-game goalie in the ECHL. He’s won the last two Playoff MVPs. It’s a clear advantage in net for the Everblades if he continues what we expect of him. 

Interestingly, Kansas City has been alternating between Cale Morris and Jack LaFontaine. 

LaFontaine was incredible against Toledo, stopping 97.2% of his shots and going 3-0, while Morris was 1-2 with a .902 SP. 

Will Kansas City coach Tad O’Had still go with a goalie platoon when he’s really going to have to get goaltending that matches with Johnson’s?

Speaking of O’Had, it should be noted that he was Ralph’s assistant from 2016 to 2020 in Florida, going to a Kelly Cup Final in 2018. We can spin that any number of ways, but I can tell you that no one I know, including Fort Wayne coach Jesse Kallechy, who was Ralph’s assistant in 2022 and 2023, claims they can get a handle on every bit of Ralph’s decision-making. In fact, what they say makes him so good is the way he adapts. 

In other words, I’m not sure O’Had has any particular advantage over Ralph, especially since he hasn’t been with Florida in so many years, but anyway you cut it, the chess match between the coaches is going to be interesting.

This might be Ralph’s biggest test as a coach so far, though. Yes, he led the Everblades to a sweep of Idaho in the 2023 finals, and that team was the ECHL’s best ever in the regular season, but this Mavericks team wasn’t that far behind it, hasn’t lost more than two consecutive games all season long, is unbelievably deep at forward and now faces a Florida team that’s lighter on talent than its last two iterations.

Ralph is going to have to come up with a superb game plan against the Mavericks. If he can do that, and if Florida can stay out of the penalty box (which has been a bit of a problem), and continue to get scoring from a lot of different people, the Everblades certainly have a shot at another Kelly Cup championship.

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Kelly Cup Finals Schedule

Kansas City Mavericks (66-15-6) Vs. Florida Everblades (52-22-9)

Game 1 – Friday, May 31 at 7:05 p.m. CT at Kansas City
Game 2 – Saturday, June 1 at 7:05 p.m. CT at Kansas City
Game 3 – Wednesday, June 5 at 7:30 p.m. ET at Florida
Game 4 – Friday, June 7 at 7:30 p.m. ET at Florida
Game 5 – Saturday, June 8 at 7:00 p.m. ET at Florida *
Game 6 – Monday, June 10 at 7:05 p.m. CT at Kansas City *
Game 7 – Wednesday, June 12 at 7:05 p.m. CT at Kansas City *

* - If Necessary

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