"This is hockey, baby, this is the playoffs."
- Bob Cole
This is hockey, and this is the playoffs, and there is a Cup at the end of the journey for one fortunate team in the ECHL. It won't be named Stanley; it goes by the name of Kelly, and on Friday the Elmira Jackals will begin their journey which they hope will result in their first Kelly Cup in franchise history. Here's your lowdown:
REVENGE ON THE MIND?
The Elmira Jackals only return a handful of players from last year's squad, who fell to Florida in five games in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Some members of last year's Jackals roster who I'll choose not to name, nor comment on whether or not they are still with the club, felt that due to financial issues, the ECHL made sure once the Jackals and Everblades got to Florida (at that time the series was tied at 1-1), that the series would end there. Those thoughts are somewhat supported after video was released of some questionable calls last year that buried the Jackals' postseason hopes.
But this is a new year, and a relatively new group of Jackals. Some key players from last year's roster are back again this year with Jordan Pietrus and Rob Bellamy spearheading Elmira's offensive attack. However, newcomers such as Andrew Rowe (the team's regular season leading scorer) Louie Caporusso (just sent back down from Binghamton), and Brandon Blandina will be called upon to take on huge roles during this series. In speaking with the Jackals before they departed for Florida, they downplayed the revenge idea, but definitely noted it's been something that had been brought up in the dressing room recently.
On paper, this matchup favors Florida, plain and simple. Not only are the Everblades the reigning Kelly Cup Champions, but they also have the ECHL's regular season scoring champion in Mathieu Roy (38G, 51A, 89P in 69GP), while Corey Trivino has taken home multiple ECHL "Rookie of the Month" honors throughout the year and posted 21P in the month of March alone. They are strong in between the pipes, lead by Mark Guggenberger (25 wins, .918 SP) and Gerald Coleman (23 wins, .918 SP). Still, the Jackals don't really seem to be phased, and instead have embraced the role of underdog in this matchup.
"That's great for them that they are winning all these awards. That only makes us a little hungrier," forward Louie Caporusso told me earlier this week. "If, in the media, they seem to have the upper hand, we'll take the underdog role and play with it and relish in it."
WHO'S IN NET?
I suppose it's a good problem to have when both your netminders are playing so well that it's hard to choose which one will be your game one starter, but as of this writing, Elmira has not announced who will be in the net on Friday night. Conventional wisdom would say it would be Maxime Clermont, a New Jersey Devils prospect who is more than capable of stepping in tonight and playing well. However, down the stretch, Ian Keserich was in between the pipes more often than Clermont, leading many to speculate that he may be tonight's starting goaltender. Keserich was the first off the ice at practice on Thursday, but that wasn't game day, so many still aren't sure which way Head Coach Dwight Mullins will go. Here's the breakdown of the two goaltenders:
- Maxime Clermont: 41 GP, 20-13-3-2. 3.24 GAA, .899 SV %
- Ian Keserich: 12 GP, 8-3-0-1. 2.35 GAA, .926 SV %
For my money, we'll see Keserich on Friday night... but I'm almost broke, so who knows.
A FIRST FOR MULLINS
Just two weeks before the Elmira Jackals opened training camp this season, they did not have a head coach. That's because Pat Bingham, who served as Head Coach of Elmira last season, bolted unexpectedly to pursue a junior hockey coaching position in Colorado. So, Elmira was able to bring in Dwight Mullins, who had only previously coached in the CHL and NAHL, to be the bench boss this season. To say that Mullins has been a pleasant surprise would be an understatement. And, yes, it's been even better that he's great with the media. In a league like the ECHL, with the absurd amount of turnover week-to-week amongst players, Mullins has held it together exceptionally well with an Elmira team that has had players being taken from them seemingly by the week with all the injuries to Ottawa and the subsequent B-Sens call-ups. He'll get his first taste of ECHL Kelly Cup Playoff action on Friday night, and he's looking forward to it:
"This is what you work for and this is what you shoot for," Mullins told me earlier this week. "You know, it's an exciting time. But, at some point in time you turn it over to the locker room. I'm excited for them, I'm excited for the challenge that we are going to go through together here now, but at the same time, that's what makes it real rewarding."
Many pundits will say that this is a bad matchup for the Jackals and it would be hard to debate them. Florida has some great scoring depth, solid goaltending, a difficult arena to play in, and know what it takes to win in these situations, having won it all last year. Still, there's something about this Jackals team that tells me their run won't end this quickly. Make no mistake: this will be a tight series. By that, I don't necessarily mean the games will be low-scoring. Instead, look for a win-loss-win-loss type of theme to potentially drag this series out to six or seven games. Elmira has a great mix of veteran players and young guys looking to make a name for themselves at the professional level. They are loose, they are excited, and, as they said above, they are embracing the role of underdog. They'll go into games one and two looking for a split because that would mean Elmira would take over home ice with games 3, 4, and 5 being played at First Arena in downtown Elmira. If they can split in Florida, I think this series swings greatly in the Jackals' favor. Because of my job, I can't really make a prediction here, but I will say this: Elmira has had everything working for them the last month of the season, and that's what it's going to take to knock off a team like Florida. We'll see if it works out for them.