ESTERO, Fla. — Though they had clinched a playoff spot before the final horn sounded on Friday night, the Florida Everblades still followed through to put an exclamation point on locking down their fifth straight playoff appearance.
Blake Winiecki netted his third multi-goal game of the season and Jeremy Helvig turned in a 36-save effort to lead the ‘Blades (41-15-5-0, 87 pts.) to a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Gladiators at Hertz Arena.
Special teams have played a key role as of late for Florida, and that trend continued Friday against Atlanta (24-25-7-1, 56 pts.). Entering Friday, the ‘Blades had scored eight power-play goals over their last five home games. Florida scored two more power-play goals on Friday on six chances, putting their conversion rate at 35.7 percent (10-for-28) over their last six games at Hertz Arena.
Winiecki got Florida on the board with 1:59 to play in the first period with Florida on the man advantage. Off the faceoff, Kyle Platzer found Matt Finn in the right circle, and Finn hammered a blast on goal. Winiecki got a piece of that shot and redirected it down low past the right pad of Atlanta goaltender Sean Bonar.
Finn wasted no time adding another goal, giving the ‘Blades a 2-0 lead with a tally just 66 seconds after he set up Winiecki for the initial strike. Speeding down the ice with numbers, Michael Neville led Florida’s stampede of three down through the right side of the ice. Neville dished to the right side for Finn, who ripped a shot from the top of the circle under the crossbar, sending the water bottle of Bonar flying from the top of the net.
Atlanta fought back within one on a power-play goal from Justin MacDonald in the first five minutes of the second period. During a net-mouth scramble, MacDonald found the puck at the right side of the net and tapped it in past Helvig at the 4:12 mark of period two.
Florida added to its lead on a partial power play with 8:36 to play in the third. Derek Sheppard sent a pass from the top of the left circle down to the left goal line extended for Kyle Platzer, who immediately zipped it to Winiecki in the slot. Winiecki uncorked a one-time shot from between the circles that beat Bonar upstairs.
Bonar was solid in goal for the Gladiators in the loss, coming up with a few highlight reel saves of the 35 he made in the game. But his effort simply wasn’t enough, as the Gladiators offense scored just once for the second straight game against Florida.
Helvig earned his 22nd win with his second-highest save total of the season, finishing just one save shy of his career high.
Florida completes the three-game series against Atlanta with a 7 p.m. matchup on Saturday at Hertz Arena.
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The Everblades are the proud ECHL affiliate of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes