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Lessons learned: Growlers discover lots about themselves, as well as the Walleye, in Game 1

Like Alex Gudbranson (left) and the Newfoundland Growlers, Ryan Pope and the Toledo Walleye showed what they're made of in Game 1 Saturday night at Mile One Centre. — Newfoundland Growlers photo/Jeff Parsons
Like Alex Gudbranson (left) and the Newfoundland Growlers, Ryan Pope and the Toledo Walleye showed what they're made of in Game 1 Saturday night at Mile One Centre. — Newfoundland Growlers photo/Jeff Parsons

Newfoundland comes out of Saturday's overtime win knowing it can be even better and that its opponent is very good

So what was learned Saturday night at Mile One Centre?

For one, thing we discovered the Newfoundland Growlers can lose their concentration. For another, it was apparent the Toledo Walleye don’t get their hearts broken easily.

In many cases, those two factors — failure to focus and a resilient opponent — would hook up and deal a knockout blow to the distracted side. But while the Growlers might have been left reeling when the Walleye overcame a 3-0 deficit with a trio goals in less than seven minutes in the third period, they kept their feet and kept their heads to come away a 4-3 overtime win in the first game of the ECHL’s Kelly Cup final.

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Except for that third-period letdown, it was a fairly tidy game for the Growlers.

Yes, they were outplayed by the Walleye in the first period and had to survive the first few minutes of the second when Toledo came out charging. But Newfoundland head coach John Snowden didn’t seem too surprised, considering his team had wrapped up the Eastern Conference final against the Florida Everblades a full seven days previously.

“We looked like a team that hadn’t played in a week and didn’t have the jump in the first that we’ve had throughout the playoffs,” said Snowden. “But we defended really well through the first two periods and Michael was very good when we needed him to be.”

Michael is goaltender Michael Garteig, who cooly backstopped as his team found itself. That bounce-back started with that defensive play Snowden talked about, especially when it came to shot-blocking. Eventually, an offence that hadn’t generated much beyond plays off the rush, mounted some sustained pressure in the waning seconds of the first period, with Zach O’Brien rifling a buzzer beater past Walleye netminder Pat Nagle. The goal — O’Brien’s ECHL-leading 15th of the playoffs — came with just .4 seconds left on the clock.

After surviving Toledo’s out-of-the dressing-room burst to the start the second, Newfoundland began to look more dangerous offensively. Midway through the frame, Hudson Elynuik put the Growlers up 2-0 , squeezing a shot through Nagle from the edge of the crease.

In the third, it was Newfoundland’s turn to charge out of the gate, and Josh Kestner gave the home side a 3-0 lea just 81 seconds into the period, with both the puck and the player ending up in the net after a resolute rush by the Growlers’ rookie forward.

It was the sort of goal that could leave most teams in smithereens, but the Walleye, playing the Growlers for the first time ever, proved why “most teams” don’t make it to finals.

Toledo had bested the Tulsa Oilers in seven games for the Western Conference crown, finishing off the Oilers Wednesday night in Tulsa. That meant a trip to Newfoundland from the central part of the continent across two-and-a-half zones, with just one full day off in St. John’s.

In those situations, teams can be left sputtering in third periods, running on fumes. But it turned out to be Newfoundland that had the fuel issues, albeit briefly, but enough to find out about the Walleye’s reserve tank.

“We took our foot of the gas for five minutes and you can’t do that against a team that’s got all the good players they’ve got,” said Snowden.

Toledo’s Chris Crane scored at 6:28 on a well-placed shot on a rush down centre. Less than a minute later, the Growlers were nabbed for too many men, a bad penalty soon made worse. Within 67 seconds, Shane Besrchbach, the Walleye’s leading scorer, brought the visitors to within one, getting a short-side snipe on Garteig, who had entered the third having registered eight straight shutout periods, but was looking a little vulnerable, at least on that goal.

With the waters chummed, the Walleye were soon back for more. Newfoundland was doing some brave shot-blocking, but Greg Wolfe would eventually score at 12:44. It was Toledo’s third goal in as many credited shots.

But that was it. Neither team inflicted any damage for the rest of the third. And when OT started, the time off Snowden felt had negatively affected the Growlers in the opening frame looked like it might have become a positive. Newfoundland showed zip and was eventually rewarded about five minutes in on Kestner’s second goal of the night, as again he offered proof of his skating ability and his nose for the net.

“He’s fast and he’s willing to go to the hard part of the ice to score. He drove hard with speed and didn’t slow up,” said Snowden.

The goal ended a game that reinforced the need for the Growlers to embrace that “no let-up” demeanor in the remainder of the series that continues tonight at Mile One.

“We got comfortable in the third. And when you get comfortable and if you stop playing when you’re up against team like that, you’re in trouble and they’ll take it to you,” said Kestner, who was on the ice for all four Growlers goals and who finished with three points, as did his linemate Elynuik (1-2).

“So no matter what happens from here on, we can’t feel comfortable … ever.”

And especially against Toledo.

"They’ve got a veteran team, lots of good players, lots of guys who have been here before, guys who have won Kelly Cups,” said Snowden. “We knew going in they weren’t going to be easily shaken, that they weren’t going to quit and they proved it tonight.

“And after tonight, we’re not going to forget it.”

The Growlers also have the knowledge than can be better than they were in winning Game 1.

“Absolutely. For one thing, we have to start better. No excuses. We were very good in spurts, but we weren’t at our best all the way through,” said Kestner. “But the thing is we did win and really, that’s the main thing.”

Dog Bites

For the second time in these playoffs, Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas took in a game at Mile One … Defenceman Adam Pardy and rookie forward Marcus Power, who had both been sidelined by injuries for the final game of the Eastern Conference final, were in the lineup Saturday night … Final shots on goal in Game 1 were 38-33 for the Growlers … Toledo had three of the four power plays awarded in the game … The three stars Saturday: 1. Kestner 2. Elynuik 3. Walleye defenceman Matt Register … Official announced attendance was 6,261

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