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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

Report from the Rock: Growlers bend but refuse to break in second round

It sounds like something out of fiction, but this statement is very real: in 2022, a hockey team under the MLSE banner is going to the Eastern Conference Finals.

There were times when it looked like the train had run out of track, and it came down to an unprecedented show of determination to get it done, but the Newfoundland Growlers have emerged from the ECHL North Division victorious over the Reading Royals in seven games.

“It could’ve went either way,” said coach Eric Wellwood after Game 7. “The series was a bit of a coin flip and we were fortunate to get through (Reading).”

The Growlers’ already strong forward group was strengthened before the series began via the Toronto Marlies assigning Pavel Gogolev back to the team. Gogolev was loaned to the Growlers in March and put up an impressive 20 points in 14 games before he was recalled to Toronto and spent most of the Marlies’ remaining games scratched, though whether that was a coach’s decision or due to injury is unknown.

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The Growlers also got another welcome boost with Orrin Centazzo stepping back in after a lower-body injury took him out of a few games near the end of the first round series. Despite those additions, the Growlers’ depth was heavily tested in the first half of the series.

Game 1 was a complete disaster, a 7-3 loss in Reading’s barn. The Royals struck early and often leading to Keith Petruzzelli being pulled 16 minutes into the game after allowing a fourth goal. It was a complete “burn the tape” game, without much noteworthy to take away.

The series was tied up in Game 2 off of a complete team, bounce-back effort. Petruzzelli stopped 26 of 27 and ever-reliable Zach O’Brien put up 3 points on the way to a 4-1 win as the series then shifted back to Newfoundland for three straight games on back-to-back-to-back nights.

Reading stole the momentum back in Game 3, silencing the home crowd with an early goal against in what would end up being a 3-1 loss for the Growlers, despite the home team dictating the pace of the game and owning a heavy advantage in the shot department.

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“I think the number one thing is not to get frustrated,” said forward Jeremy McKenna, who scored the team’s lone goal in Game 3. “We carried play for a majority of the game, we just didn’t quite get the bounces tonight.”

Game 4 was chaos incarnated. Despite the three-in-three situation, Petruzzelli suited up again between the pipes and Reading got out to a quick start again, capitalizing on some sloppy defence to take a 3-1 lead after the first period, which was the end of Petruzzelli’s night. The Growlers clawed back into the game in the second, with goals from Centazzo (now back on the top line) and Noel Hoefenmayer, but trailed 4-3 after 40.

Game 4 featured officiating that was just mind-boggling from a pure hockey fan’s point of view, both teams had eight opportunities with the man advantage, but over half of those for both sides were phantom calls. Not to mention numerous instances of plays being erroneously called offside, and more than one point when a play was called dead before a goalie made an attempt to cover it and it was still in plain view for everyone in the arena to see.

This lacklustre effort by the officials led to a loud “Ref, you suck” chant that shook the rafters of Mary Brown’s Centre, something that had not been heard at a Growlers home game all season up to that point.

The game ended 6-5 in favour of Reading, and although this brought the Growlers to the brink of elimination, it would be Reading’s final win of the season.

Momentum

The first 40 minutes of Game 5 were tightly contested. A powerplay goal from McKenna in the final minute of the first period, a power play goal against early in the second, followed by Centazzo’s seventh of the postseason were the only entries on the scoresheet up to that point. The third period saw an offensive outburst, with two goals from Gogolev and Tyler Boland’s 10th in just under four minutes to secure a much needed 5-1 win. It was a complete team effort to take the series momentum back.

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Back on the road for both Game 6 and 7, the Growlers did something that only one other team in ECHL history had done, and that is to win two do-or-die games in their opponent’s barn. Both games ended 4-2 and featured the complete Growlers identity in a nutshell- full-team defence mixed with ‘anyone can score’ offence.

Tyler Boland put up his 11th and 12th goals of the postseason in Game 6, whereas Game 7 saw two goals from the back-end off the sticks of Noel Hoefenmayer (who now holds a Growlers franchise record 11-game point streak) as well as a shorthanded goal from depth forward Derian Plouffe. Petruzzelli had very little work to do in the closing games of the series, as the Growlers managed to limit Reading to 22 shots in Game 6, and 16 in the winner-take-all game.

“Can’t say enough about our team defence,” Petruzzelli said after Game 7. “Just unbelievable the way the boys beared down, getting pucks out and making my job easy.”

And Wellwood had high praise for his entire team’s compete level and drive to find success when faced with such a tremendous challenge as they had.

“The character on this team is so high,” the coach said. “The boys wanna win so bad, their will and determination are second to none. I feel as a coach that I’m lucky to have a group of guys in that room that care so much and just have that much willpower… None of us were ready to go home early.”

Tonight, the Growlers begin the Eastern Conference Final matchup with the Florida Everblades. Game 1 of this series will be the first time the two teams have met in over two years (a 3-0 Everblades win on February 28, 2020) and it will be the second time in the Growlers’ short franchise history that they meet the Everblades in the East finals (the 2019 series ended 4-1 in the Growlers favour.) Puck drop is set for 7pm NL time on May 20 and the full series can be heard for free at mixlr.com/nlgrowlers or viewed on flohockey.tv (subscription fee applies).

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