Arvin Atwal, front, and Cody Sol, back, jaw with Orlando players while in the penalty box during a Florida Everblades preseason game. KEATON HANLEY/SPECIAL TO CSI
As they approach the midway point of the season, locked in a battle with the Indy Fuel for the ECHL’s top spot, the Florida Everblades’ identity is in full bloom.
A delicate flower this team is not.
Rather, the Blades have ramped up the intensity, and their in-your-face style has given every team in the South Division fits. Florida (19-5-0-1), which opens a three-game set with the South Carolina Stingrays on Wednesday night, has won seven straight and is two points ahead of Indy (18-4-1-0), though the Blades trail the Fuel in winning percentage.
With players like Michael Huntebrinker, John McCarron, Arvin Atwal, Cody Sol, Matt Petgrave and Michael Neville, to name a few, Florida has someone breathing down the opponents’ necks no matter where they are on the ice. Head coach Brad Ralph and assistant coach Jesse Kallechy’s team strategy has someone constantly on top of the puck carrier.
“I thought last week was noticeably by everyone a really intense weekend,” Kallechy said. “You know, no doubt playing in South Carolina, our rival, things got heated. And I think that’s when our team is at our best, when emotion intensity gets high, we’re certainly a team that can live and thrives on the edge. We just have to make sure that we don’t go over the edge, which sometimes it’s going to happen with our group. But I think overall we’re happy with where we’re at.”
Said Huntebrinker: “I think it starts with our D-core, we have a lot of guys who play really physical back there and bring a lot to the table. So, I think it starts from them, where we get a lot of our confidence and our intensity. And I think we just have a good team dynamic where everyone comes ready to play every game.”
No stranger to intensity and a high compete level, Huntebrinker is one of the first Everblades that fans and, more importantly, players take notice of during a game. He’s always hustling, and whether it’s the start of a shift or the end of a long shift, Huntebrinker is constantly around the puck.
“I just think it makes it a little harder to play against anytime your forwards bring that kind of physicality … it’s tougher to break the break the puck out,” Huntebrinker said when asked about the team’s style of play. “I think you might not see the results from it in the first or second (periods), but over the course of the game, I think that wears the other team down. It might make them second guess themselves when they’re going back for a puck, so it’s something we take a lot of pride in as a team.”
Early in the preseason, Huntebrinker was highlighted as a key player to watch because he is always adding to his game, and coaches and teammates have talked about him being one of the hardest working players in the locker room. He has lived up to the expectations and then some.
Through 25 games, Huntebrinker is tied for first in the league with 14 goals. But what Huntebrinker has managed to accomplish so far this season isn’t limited to his scoring prowess. He has also been a key part of the most effective and dangerous penalty kill in the league, as the Blades lead the ECHL in kill percentage (88.8) and short-handed goals (six).
Florida’s short-handed goals have all come from different sticks — McCarron, Levko Koper, Joe Pendenza, Tanner Jeannot, Alec Marsh and Huntebrinker have all found the net. The Blades are finding offensive chances while down a man largely because of something that’s joked about in the locker room. It’s called “The Power Kill” — you may have heard this term thrown around the last few seasons with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. They were finding a way to disrupt opponents’ power plays on the point and springing players the other way for an unorthodox short-handed scoring opportunity.
Alison Lukan of The Athletic coined the term “Power Kill” in 2019 and explained the strategy in detail along with Meghan Hall at The CBJ Hockey Analytics Conference in 2020. Ever since the Blue Jackets began having success with the strategy, it has spread all over hockey and right down to Southwest Florida.
Said Kallechy: “Our guys love using the term ‘power kill’. It’s certainly something that our guys love to joke about. Certainly, creating offense is not something that we really talk about, or try and use, but I think we’re fortunate that we’ve been able to put them to use in some tough spots with our aggressiveness. We just have some really good players that are able to make some plays, and sometimes on the penalty kill, you can catch some other teams sleeping or taking their foot off the gas a little bit.
“For us, we have some guys that are dangerous, and if you take your foot off the gas for even half a second, they can make you pay. So, the ‘power kill’ has been effective. But certainly, our number one goal is to make sure that we’re killing the penalty. And if we can create offense, it’s just a bonus.”
Said Huntebrinker: “I think the fact that we have a high-pressure (style) helps. I think the mindset of our kill is to be very aggressive. There’s a lot of speed involved and we’re constantly sending a guy going full speed so that makes it a little tougher on the opposing teams’ power play. So, when we do create those turnovers and create those foot races, we already have some speed. I think a lot of it is just Jesse’s done a great job of kind of changing our penalty kill this year and we have a lot of speed. So, I think it’s tough to play against.”
The Blades have maintained consistency on the penalty kill despite frequent roster turnover due to AHL call-ups. McCarron, Sol, Atwal, Koper, Neville and Huntebrinker have been the unit’s core for most of the season, though there have been some additions.
“We have had some guys that have been in it all year, which has been huge, and you’re able to throw those guys over the boards early, which helps,” Kallechy said. “And then I think we’ve had some new guys that have been able to jump in. You look at a guy like Marcus Vela or Evan Neugold, guys like that, that have kind of jumped in more recently and done a really good job.
“It’s a group that has really bought in. The players (are) helping the new guys come in and really get acclimated to what we’re trying to do. I think Brad’s done a really good job of helping reinforce the positives with these guys, and (it’s) just something that’s clicked for us so far. We’re pretty happy with it, but I think we can still be better.”