A sweet treat arrived Saturday night for the Jacksonville Icemen.
Credit the assists to the Florida Everblades – and to Mickey Mouse.
The Icemen, seeded third in the ECHL South Division, will begin their Kelly Cup playoffs with unexpected home advantage at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on Thursday against the second-seeded Atlanta Gladiators.
After beating the Orlando Solar Bears 3-1 in Saturday night’s regular season finale, the Icemen will play not just the opener but the first four games of the Kelly Cup opening-round series against the Gladiators in Jacksonville.
That’s right: Although the Gladiators are seeded above the Icemen, Jacksonville in effect receives home ice advantage for the series, and in theory could eliminate the Gladiators in a sweep without ever setting their skates in Atlanta.
The ECHL cited arena scheduling conflicts for the move. Atlanta’s Gas South Arena is booked from April 21-24 for Disney on Ice, followed by a three-day Christian ministry event, the Orange Conference, from April 27-29.
The Everblades, so often a nemesis for the Icemen in the past, indirectly lent them a helping stick on Saturday night. Florida beat Atlanta 5-3 in their season finale, overtaking the Gladiators for the No. 1 seed and pushing them down a notch into the matchup against Jacksonville. Had Atlanta won, the Icemen would have instead had to play against the Everblades, with the Estero club getting home ice advantage.
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When do the Icemen playoffs begin?
Game 1: Atlanta at Jacksonville, 7 pm Thursday, April 21
Game 2: Atlanta at Jacksonville, 7 pm Friday, April 22
Game 3: Atlanta at Jacksonville, 7 pm Wednesday, April 27
Game 4: Atlanta at Jacksonville, 7 pm Thursday, April 28
Game 5 (if necessary): Jacksonville at Atlanta, 3 pm Sunday, May 1
Game 6 (if necessary): Jacksonville at Atlanta, 7 pm Monday, May 2
Game 7 (if necessary): Jacksonville at Atlanta, 7 pm Wednesday, May 4
Icemen freeze Solar Bears in the final
Turning point: Travis Howe scored the game-winner late in the first period to lift the Icemen past the Orlando Solar Bears 3-1 in Saturday night’s season finale at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
Three stars: 1. Howe, Jacksonville (one goal). 2. Ara Nazarian, Jacksonville (one goal). 3. Jacob Panetta, Jacksonville (one assist).
Penalty box: The teams combined for just one penalty, a minor hook against Howe, before a sold-out crowd announced at 8,936.
Around the rink: Abbott Girduckis added an empty-net goal in the final minute for the Icemen (40-27-3-2), sealing the team’s 40th victory of the season. … Goaltender Francois Brassard, named first-team All-ECHL this week, saved 15 shots. … The Solar Bears (33-31-6-1) miss the playoffs, edged out for fourth by the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
Up next: The Icemen begin the second Kelly Cup playoff journey in franchise history at 7 pm Thursday inside their home arena against the Atlanta Gladiators.
Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX.