2024 Kansas City Mavericks vs Florida Everblades

Unflappable Everblades Rebuilt On Fly, Win Third Consecutive Kelly Cup

Unflappable Everblades Rebuilt On Fly, Win Third Consecutive Kelly Cup

Perhaps it’s fitting that Matthew Wedman, who didn’t skate a single regular-season game with the Florida Everblades, netted the 2024 Kelly Cup-winning goal.

Jun 10, 2024 by Justin Cohn

Perhaps it’s fitting that Matthew Wedman, a player who didn’t skate a single regular-season game with the Florida Everblades, netted the 2024 Kelly Cup-winning goal Saturday night against the Kansas City Mavericks.

What the Everblades have done is phenomenal, becoming the first team in ECHL history to win three consecutive championships, and it’s made all the more astounding when you stop to consider what constructing a roster is like in Double-A hockey.

The majority of players skate on one-year, non-guaranteed contracts, though there are exceptions, namely some of the players on NHL or American Hockey League contracts. 

The point is, that the level of turnover season to season for just about every ECHL team is incredibly high. It’s very hard to ride with the same nucleus throughout a dynasty, as a team in the NHL might be able to do.

The Everblades have rebuilt on the fly, and they have done it masterfully.

Only three players who won the Kelly Cup with Florida in 2022 did so for a third time this season – Cam Johnson, Joe Pendenza and Kyle Neuber – and even head coach Brad Ralph’s staff has changed along the way. 

Jesse Kallechy, his top assistant in 2002 and 2023, left last summer to become the Fort Wayne Komets’ head coach, and he was replaced at Ralph’s side by Anthony Peters.

That’s life in the ECHL, where the rosters are always in flux. Players get called up to the AHL. Others get sent down. Players bolt for big money overseas. Others come back to unexpectedly join a bitter rival. Players retire unexpectedly. Others unretire.

Ralph’s intelligence as a coach may only be outmatched by his savvy in player personnel, because the way he’s constructed and reconstructed the Everblades since the Komets won the 2021 Cup has been maybe the most remarkable facet of this Florida dynasty.

That brings us back to Wedman, whose Cup-winning goal came in overtime on a whistling shot from between the circles 38 feet out, beating Kansas City Mavericks goaltender Jack LaFontaine low, stick-side. 

The 4-3 victory set off a raucous celebration in front of 7,910 spectators at Hertz Arena in Estero, Florida, as the Everblades bounced the Mavericks 4-1 in a best-of-seven series.

“I had just gotten on the ice, I hadn’t been on for long, and I saw Will Reilly coming down the wing,” Wedman said of his winning goal. “I got some speed up the middle, and he found me just across the blue line. I could see LaFontaine wasn’t quite set in his net, so I just tried to just get it off as quick as I could. Luckily, he wasn’t set, and it was a nice feeling.”

The Everblades beefed up in the days leading up to the March trade deadline, getting the rights to defenseman Zach Berzolla from the Cincinnati Cyclones and signing forward Josh Ho-Sang, who was a first-round NHL draft pick in 2014.

“(Ho-Sang) has been awesome – me and him talk a lot during practice and before games about how we need to play and how we can adapt our games to benefit each other,” said Wedman, who was on a line Saturday with Ho-Sang and Logan Lambdin. “I thought we did a good job of reading off each other and complementing each other. That was a great experience playing with (Ho-Sang). He’s got a great hockey mind, and I think he should be playing at a higher level, for sure.”

Wedman’s rights were picked up from Fort Wayne right at the March 21 deadline. The Komets were trying unsuccessfully to get into the playoffs and couldn’t wait any longer for him to return from Calgary of the AHL. The Everblades parted with Stanislav Demin and Zack Andrusiak, who’d they’d just acquired from Cincinnati.

“I was upset,” said Wedman, who skated for five teams this season, including Cleveland and Henderson in the AHL. “I was close with a lot of the guys in Fort Wayne, so it was tough to know I wouldn’t be going back there. They were making a push, and I wasn’t able to come back for it, and they needed some reinforcements. I understand that.”

Florida still owes Fort Wayne and Cincinnati future considerations for the Wedman and Berzolla acquisitions, but no one in Estero should be complaining about that today.

Wedman, who’s big on faceoffs and plays a physical game, didn’t join the Everblades until the playoffs – they were the third seed in the South Division – and he had five goals and 15 points in 23 games. He also became the first ECHL player to score a Cup-winning overtime goal since 2012, when Florida’s Brandon MacLean scored against Las Vegas.

Ho-Sang, whose skating and stickhandling ability still sizzle, had one goal and 18 points in 22 playoff games. Berzolla had one goal and five points in 23 games and anchored a solid defensive corps.

Nine of Florida’s players weren’t even on the roster in mid-February. 

It takes a certain type of adaptable player to join a team late in a season and integrate as well as the guys in Florida have, but it also takes a good locker room to begin with and, of course, good coaching.

Here’s where I tell you that every AHL team with an opening for a head coach should have Ralph at the top of their list, and I don’t care if he hasn’t coached above the ECHL level.

While I’ve been raving about the newer players, I don’t want to do any disservice to those who were on the roster in February, such as Playoff MVP Oliver Chau (nine goals, 23 points in playoffs), Bobo Carpenter (12 goals, 23 points) and defenseman Cole Moberg (six goals, 14 points). 

Neuber was scoreless in only two playoff games, but the rugged forward became the first player to win the Kelly Cup four times.

Having Johnson – one of nine players who won the Kelly Cup in 2022 and 2023 – certainly helps. The Playoff MVP in 2022 and 2023, he further solidified his reputation as the ECHL’s best big-game goaltender and workhorse; he was 16-7 with a 1.88 goals-against average, a .932 save percentage and three shutouts in the playoffs.

And, of course, there’s Mark Senden, a breakout rookie forward who had nine goals and 15 points in the playoffs. That included back-to-back goals in the third period Saturday to bring the Everblades back from a 3-1 deficit against a Mavericks team that had impressed all season in high-leverage situations just like that one.

By dropping Games 3, 4 and 5 – all in Estero – the Mavericks lost three consecutive games for the first time all season. They also became the third straight regular-season champion and top seed to lose to the Everblades in the Kelly Cup Finals, joining the Toledo Walleye in 2022 and Idaho Steelheads in 2023.

Saturday’s game turned with a Senden short-handed goal 8:55 into the third period at the end of a quick odd-man rush, when the Mavericks had five forwards on the ice. Hindsight is 20/20, but that was a mistake with a two-goal lead in a must-win game.

Senden then scored when a Moberg shot caromed off him and past LaFontaine at 18:12.

LaFontaine was terrific in the playoffs, going 7-4 with a 2.22 GAA and a .938 SP. He started the final four games of the playoffs after coach Tad O’Had – a former Ralph assistant in Florida – had alternated between LaFontaine and Cale Morris in the first three rounds of the postseason.

Jeremy McKenna led the Mavericks in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 21 points.

I – like most people – had picked the Mavericks to win this series. As I wrote at the time, I struggled with the decision. 

I wanted to pick the Everblades because I’d seen something through the first three rounds against Jacksonville (seven games), Orlando (five) and Adirondack (six), a resiliency, adaptability and determination, but I couldn’t justify the pick because almost everything on paper suggested the Mavericks were the better team. 

I guess I chickened out, just as I did when I picked the Everblades to lose in the first round in 2022 and this year, both to teams I’d thought would win the Cup, Jacksonville and South Carolina, respectively.

Therein lies the great quality with this Everblades team – its unflappability. 

In seven of their last eight playoff series, the Everblades have been the underdogs, at least by seeding. They’ve won them all, always being the more physical team, the one making the better adjustments, the one with better goaltending and the one that’s been able to win on the road while also taking care of business when it matters most at Hertz Arena.

“Anytime we faced adversity, we were confident we could get through it,” Wedman said. “That comes from winning in the past and having guys on the team who’d won it the last two years. Having guys who have won like that and believe you can do it in the face of adversity, I think that’s one of the biggest factors.”

OK, so it’s not all rebuilding on the fly.

Kelly Cup Finals Results

Kansas City Mavericks Vs. Florida Everblades

Game 1 – Florida 8, Kansas City 1
Game 2 – Kansas City 5, Florida 1
Game 3 – Florida 6, Kansas City 3
Game 4 – Florida 4, Kansas City 1
Game 5 – Florida 4, Kansas City 3 (OT)

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