The race for the Kelly Cup started this evening at VyStar Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. The second-place Jacksonville Icemen hosted the third-place Greenville Swamp Rabbits for game one of the seven-game series. This is Jacksonville’s third trip to the Kelly Cup playoffs, their second consecutive year in the postseason. The Swamp Rabbits enter the postseason for the eighth time this year, their third consecutive trip.
The first period saw a domineering Greenville team take command of the ice for most of the period. The Swamp Rabbits maintained control of the puck and played a quick style of hockey, skating at the Icemen in their own zone and moving the puck around fast. The Icemen struggled to maintain possession of the puck and rarely got a chance to generate chances in the offensive zone. This was reflected by the fact that the Swamp Rabbits outshot the Icemen 15 to 3 in the first period of hockey. Forward Ben Freeman would ensure Greenville’s efforts would be rewarded with a goal on the powerplay at 14:10, putting the Rabbits up 1-0. Signs of life would be present in the Icemen when tempers started to flare after the last buzzer of the period; however, for the first twenty minutes of hockey, the Icemen lacked any “jump” in their game. Often times sluggish, Jacksonville looked to fall behind plays quickly and struggled to move the puck through the neutral zone.
The second period of hockey was a bit of a different story than the first, although not a dramatically different one. Jacksonville found a way to carry the puck through the neutral zone better but could not get anything going offensively. Both teams turned up the physicality of their game in the middle frame, with the Icemen’s recent re-addition Jacob Friend being a significant physical presence around the boards. The Icemen had four minutes of powerplay time in the second but could not convert anything with the man advantage. Although unsuccessful, the Icemen found ways to settle down on the powerplay and get the puck moving to open up scoring chances. Both teams could only get eight shots a piece on goal due mainly to the more physical style of play. The Icemen’s heavy, hard-hitting style in the second contributed to some more extended times in their own zone, yet they still struggled with puck control. Turnovers in transition during quick back-and-forth bursts of play were common and offered some grade-A scoring chances to the Swamp Rabbits.
The second period may have lacked offense, but there was no shortage of offense in the third. Josh McKechney of the Swamp Rabbits would get things going early, cleaning up on a rebound in front of Icemen goalie Charles Williams at 2:25. Williams made some big stops throughout the game but ran into some trouble in the third period. Shortly after McKechney’s insurance marker, Joe Gatenby would contribute to the Swamp Rabbits’ lead. The Greenville defenseman was able to charge towards the crease and drive a 3-0 goal home. The first real sustained offensive pressure from Jacksonville would come towards the middle of the last period after Craig Martin put the Icemen on the board with 12:39 left. The tempo of the Icemen’s game changed after Martin’s goal. Finding ways to get the puck into open ice, the Icemen were able to move into the offensive zone and set up shop. Martin’s goal would be the only Icemen goal of the game, but the effort would go on to be reflected with the Icemen outshooting Greenville 15 to 8 in the final frame. With 5:13 left to go and down three goals, Icemen coach Nick Luukko opted for the empty net. Jacksonville generated a bit of pressure with the extra skater. Still, the 4-1 empty net goal from Greenville’s Alex Ierullo would have sealed the Icemen’s game-one fate with certainty.
Jacksonville had a heavy stretch of games to finish the regular season, playing three games in as many nights and four times in the span of five days. Fatigue after a run like that is naturally expected to have some kind of impact on performance. The Icemen have had a day off, though – four, actually – since that stretch. The team out there tonight looked fresh off of a tough run of games. Slow to get to the puck, careless puck movement in transition, and finding it hard to get structure going in their offensive game. The Swamp Rabbits were aggressive on the puck, able to easily move through the neutral zone, and had no problems setting up in the Icemen’s end. At times Greenville skated right at, and right by, the Icemen. The Icemen are a team that plays hard on the puck. They often create space by driving in aggressively and finding ways to cycle the puck out to an open man. The Swamp Rabbits were able to keep them from doing just that by playing a quick, aggressive game of their own. Jacksonville will have to find a way to settle their game and control the pace to keep things competitive in game two.
Game two is scheduled for 5:00 pm ET on Sunday, April 23, at VyStar Memorial Arena. A full schedule of action can be found below.
Game 3 – Tuesday, April 25 at 7:05 pm ET at Greenville
Game 4 – Friday, April 28 at 7:05 pm ET at Greenville
Game 5 – Saturday, April 29 at 7:05 pm ET at Greenville (If Necessary)
Game 6 – Tuesday, May 2 at 7 pm ET at Jacksonville (If Necessary)
Game 7 –Wednesday, May 3 at 7 pm ET at Jacksonville (If Necessary)