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Onward and upward: Newfoundland Growlers continue journey into the unknown

Newfoundland Growlers forward Scott Pooley celebrates after he and his teammates finished posing with the E.A. “Bud” Gingher Trophy after winning the ECHL Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win over the Florida Everblades Saturday night at Mile One Centre.
Newfoundland Growlers forward Scott Pooley celebrates after he and his teammates finished posing with the E.A. “Bud” Gingher Trophy after winning the ECHL Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win over the Florida Everblades Saturday night at Mile One Centre. - Newfoundland Growlers Photo/Jeff Parsons

They're the first ECHL expansion team to reach final in almost three decades; either Toledo or Tulsa will be opponent in championship series

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

The Newfoundland Growlers will be heading into new territory as they begin play in the ECHL Kelly Cup final this weekend.

Of course, as an ECHL expansion team, everything has been new for the Growlers in 2018-19. However, the best-of-seven championship series that starts with games Saturday and Sunday nightsat Mile One Centre adds a new wrinkle to Newfoundland’s first-year cloth because their opponent will be one they haven’t faced this season.

The Growlers will take on either the Toledo Walleye or Tulsa Oilers, who are tied 3-3 in the Western Conference final heading into a deciding game Wednesday night in Toledo, Ohio. The Oilers, who are affiliated with the St. Louis Blues, extended the series with a 4-2 win over the Walleye, the ECHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, Monday night in Toledo

All of Newfoundland’s games this season — save for a couple against the Fort Wayne Komets — have been against teams in the league’s Eastern Conference.

Whatever the matchup in the final, the Growlers will hold home-ice advantage. Newfoundland finished with the third-best regular-season record behind the Cincinnati Cyclones and Florida Everblades, but the Cyclones lost to the Walleye in the second round of the playoffs, while the Everblades were eliminated by the Growlers in the Eastern Conference final.

Newfoundland won the latter series 4-1, finishing things off with back-to-back shutouts Friday and Saturday nights at Mile One.

The Growlers went through the first three rounds of playoffs with a 12-5 record, doing so — as they had in the regular season — with a very young lineup. Eleven of the 21 players who have dressed for Newfoundland this post-season are rookies, while Newfoundland players, on average, entered the present campaign with fewer than two years of pro experience, less than any other team in the league, By comparison, according to eliteprospects.com, Tulsa and Toledo each are averaging around three and a half years of pro experience per player.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Growlers are devoid of championship experience, although only two of them have been part of teams that won titles at the professional level. Defenceman Sam Jardine was with the Colorado Eagles when they won the Kelly Cup in 2016, while Zach O’Brien won the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup final in 2015 with the Manchester Monarchs.

There are a couple of forwards who helped their teams to major junior championships; Giorgio Estephan did so with the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos last spring, while J.J. Piccinich was with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights when they won the league crown and then the Memorial Cup in 2016.

Other than that, there is forward Brady Ferguson, who won an NAHL (U.S. junior A league) championship with the Amarillo Bulls in 2013, reserve rearguard Ilya Nekolenko, a Russian (MHL) junior champion in 2014 with Moscow Spartak and goalie Michael Garteig, who was with the 2012 British Columbia Hockey League champion Penticton Vees , who went on to win the RBC Cup Canadian junior A crown that same year.

Garteig also won an ECAC title and played in an NCAA Division 1 championship final in 2016 with Qunnipiac University. But interestingly, while Garteig signed an entry-level deal with the Vancouver Canucks later that same year, he hadn’t played a single playoff game as a professional before this spring.

But you wouldn’t know it by his performance over the past month and a half.

Garteig sports a 2.07 goals-against average and .934 save percentage this post-season. He entered this week leading all goalies in the Kelly Cup playdowns in wins (12), minutes played (1,042) and saves (508). He’s also tops in shutouts, with three, including a couple as the Growlers closed out the series with Florida by winning 6-0 Friday and 3-0 Saturday.

Another Growlers stats leader entering Monday was O’Brien, whose 24 points (14 goals and 10 assist) was tied for tops in the league with Stephen Perfetto of Tulsa. O’Brien was also first in goals scored, game-winning goals (five) and shots taken (82).

Dog Bites

Estephan led the Growlers in the conference final with nine points (4G, 5A) in five games, while Garteig had a 1.23 goals-against average and save percentage of .961 … There had been some thought the Kelly Cup final would begin with games Friday and Saturday at Mile One, but with the possibility of a Game 7 Wednesday between Tula and Toledo, the decision was made to delay the start by a day … Because of the travel distances involved, the final will follow a 2-3-2 pattern, with Games 3, 4 and 5 (the latter if necessary) in Tulsa or Toledo on May 29 (Wednesday), May 31 (Friday) and June 1 (Saturday) … There were a total of 111 penalty minutes (79 assessed to the Everblades) handed out in Friday’s Game 4 between Florida and Newfoundland, but just one minor penalty (to Joe Cox of the visitors) in Game 5 the next night … By winning the Eastern Conference final, the Growlers claimed the E.A. “Bud” Gingher Trophy, named after a ECHL Hall of Famer and former chairman of the league’s board of governors …. Newfoundland is the first team to reach ECHL final in its inaugural season since the Greensboro Monarchs in 1990 … Friday and Saturday’s games drew 4,437 and 4,213 fans, respectively, to Mile One. That gives the Growlers and average attendance post-season of 4,193, just under the league average playoff attendance of 4,257…

Twitter: @telybrendan


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