Thus far in the 2012-13 hockey season, the defending champion Florida Everblades have discovered that life at the top can be rocky. While the NHL lockout resulted in an increased talent pool across the ECHL, last year's Kelly Cup champions have struggled through much of the season's first half. Though a squad featuring returning scorers like Mathieu Roy and Matt Marquardt has often been exciting, the club has surrendered far too many goals in return.
The deficiency is surprising since Kelly Cup MVP John Muse and veteran Pat Nagle have stood between the pipes for the majority of games. Surrendering the third most goals in the Eastern Conference, the Blades have attempted to counter this weakness with an effective offense. Benefiting from a wealth of higher-level talent, the strategy has largely worked, as the team remains in the hunt for a playoff position.
With the mid-season ECHL All-Star Classic in Colorado just a week away, those chances were bolstered by a 3 game sweep of the Toledo Walleye. Welcoming the North Division opponent to Florida for the sole visit of the campaign, the Everblades claimed a 4-1 contest on Wednesday, Jan. 9, followed by nail-biting 3-2 and 4-3 victories on Friday and Saturday.
Adding to the intrigue, both clubs were affected by the intervening NHL labor agreement. With Florida's pair of NHL affiliates drawing upon needed players from the AHL, those depleted clubs summoned help from the Blades. Due to the movements triggered by the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, Florida skated on Saturday without the recently-recalled Leigh Salters, Matthew Pistilli, Beau Schmitz, Charles Landry, Alex Hutchings, A.J. Jenks, and Muse.
In fact, the depletion forced retired forward Ernie Hartlieb again to lace up his old skates. The 33 year-old was a regular for the Blades from 2005-2010 and his jersey was even atop Germain Arena in 2012. In addition to serving as an emergency fill-in for the past 2 years, Hartlieb is a local banker and assists in the radio broadcasts of home games. Though held scoreless, the Michigan native posted 4 shots against Toledo and was given a trip to the penalty box. 36 year-old defenseman Ryan Brindley also appeared in Saturday's game, which marked his first professional contest since 2007.
The triumphant series improved Florida's record to 18-13-7, which gives the team 43 points. Despite occupying only 3rd place in the South Division, the Blades now possess the 5th best mark in the East. Three critical road games with the Gwinnett Gladiators and Greenville Road Warriors are scheduled for next weekend, before the ECHL breaks for its all-star contest.