By Dave Montrose
FORT MYERS – The banner went up. And then it was back to work.
The Florida Everblades celebrated their 2022 Kelly Cup championship on Saturday night with a banner-raising ceremony before beating the Jacksonville Icemen 2-0 in their 2022-23 home opener.
For the ceremony, John McCarron and Nathan Perkovich, two players from the championship squad that retired in the offseason, brought out the Kelly Cup trophy and put it on a table set up at one end of the ice. After some words from president and general manager Craig Brush, the current players who were on that team gathered around as the banner slowly rose to the rafters between the U.S. and Canadian flags.
“I was happy for all the players and fans just to kind of relive it a little bit,” Everblades coach Brad Ralph said. “I thought the team did a great job with all the videos and presentation. It was a nice way to start this season off and remember all the great memories from last year.”
It took about two minutes for the banner to reach the top. It took about that long for the fighting to start once the game began.
Florida forward Michael Neville drew a whistle for boarding after he crashed into Jacksonville forward Matt Salhany. Jacksonville players responded with a scuffle. Neville ended up with both a 5-minute major and a 10-minute game misconduct penalty for the offense.
Blake Winiecki as well as Jacksonville’s Garret Cockerill and Ara Nazarian also got 2-minute roughing penalties for the incident.
“The league will review it and decide if it’s a suspendable act,” Ralph said.
Neville’s ejection forced the Everblades to adapt to having one of their key forward lines be short a man. The Icemen had the upper hand offensively for a time, controlling the offensive flow for the first 10 minutes of the game.
But goalie Cam Johnson was game. After being roughed up and giving up four goals last weekend in the opener at Atlanta, he responded by stopping all nine first-period shots. He went on to make 28 saves to complete the shutout.
“We all what Cam can do,” Ralph said. “He wasn’t happy with his performance. To his credit, he responded in a huge way. I thought he was phenomenal. He’s a very calming presence and made some huge saves to keep it 0-0 until we could get some run support for him. He was awesome. He’s a leader on this team and shows it in many different ways.”
At one point, Johnson was perhaps a little too game. Four minutes into the game, Jacksonville forward Zach Jordan crashed into him, triggering a goaltender interference penalty. Rookie defenseman Robert Calisti protected Johnson by shoving Jordan away. Then Johnson himself got involved before officials broke it up.
“I’d prefer that Cam stay in his crease, to be honest,” Ralph said.
All told, there were 18 infractions in the first period between the teams for 51 penalty minutes, showing no love lost between the in-state rivals.
“No doubt,” Ralph said. “Last year, they were a rival team. We swept them in the playoffs, so you know they were coming back to try to settle the score. I was proud of our group that we handled the physical side of it early.”
Play became more conventional in the second period as the Everblades adjusted. Both Everblades goals came in the second, and both were assisted by the same two forwards, Dominic Franco and Cam Morrison.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries and a lot of issues pop up in the last couple of weeks,” Ralph said. “That was a new line that we formed this week. There’s a lot of American (Hockey) League experience on that line.”
Defenseman Cole Moberg, who split time between the Orlando Solar Bears and the AHL San Jose Barracuda last year, scored his first goal as an Everblade in the ninth minute.
Morrison took a pass at the blue line and fired off a shot that rebounded off Jacksonville goalie Parker Gahagen. Franco took the rebound around the back of the net and passed it up to Moberg in the slot, who hit a one-timer past Gahagen’s glove.
Defenseman Brandon Hickey, who spent his first four professional seasons with four AHL teams, got his first ECHL goal in the 18th minute. This time Franco, as he crossed the blue line, passed the puck to Morrison on his left. Morrison skated up into the left faceoff circle and passed it back. Hickey was skating up into the slot and took a one-time shot that also went past Gahagen’s glove.
“Full marks to our D,” Ralph said. “I thought they were phenomenal in every facet of the game, including offensively. By design, we’re heavy on our back end, and it paid off tonight.”
The Everblades (2-1) will host the Icemen (2-2) again next weekend in a two-game series, Friday night at 7:30 and Saturday night at 7.
This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News.