Travis Morin slid the puck down the length of the ice, looked up at the scoreboard, and knew it was over.
The South Carolina Stingrays were going to win the franchise's third Kelly Cup title.
The Stingrays beat the Alaska Aces, 4-2, Friday night in Anchorage in a decisive Game 7 to capture the ECHL championship for the third time since joining the league 16 years ago.
As the Stingrays players poured over the bench and mobbed rookie goaltender James Reimer, head coach Jared Bednar turned to hug assistant coach Cail MacLean and the celebration was on.
"As soon as I cleared the puck out of our zone and I looked up at the clock and saw there was only five seconds left I knew we'd won," said Morin, who played most of the playoffs with a severely sprained wrist. "It's kind of hard to put into words how you feel at that moment. I mean, there's definitely a lot of satisfaction, complete joy, but it's not something you can describe."
The only thing that could have been better for the Stingrays would have been to win the Kelly Cup at the North Charleston Coliseum.
"Obviously, you want to win it in front of your own fans," said Stingrays coach Jared Bednar. "They've been along for the ride all season and you really want to reward them. But in the end, you just want to win it, so it doesn't matter where that happened as long as it happened."
The Stingrays certainly didn't make it easy on themselves during the playoffs, in the final series against Alaska or especially in Game 7.
After jumping out to a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, the Stingrays dropped Game 5, 3-2, in overtime at home last Saturday night to force the series back to Alaska. The Aces won Game 6, also 3-2, Thursday night to force a winner-take-all Game 7. It was just the third Game 7 in the 21-year history of the ECHL.
"I don't think anyone thought this was going to be a short series," said defensive Patrick Wellar, who won a Kelly Cup title with the Aces in 2006. "These were two pretty evenly matched teams with a lot of character and pride in the locker rooms. We knew this was going to be a battle until the final buzzer."
Like in Game 6, the Stingrays jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the second period Friday night. But unlike Game 6, the Stingrays were able to hold off a furious Aces rally that saw them pull to within a goal, 3-2, on Matt Stefanishion's slap shot with 1:45 left in regulation.
"We'd get up and then they'd answer," Bednar said. "There were times in the third period when I was wondering if this was really going to happen for us."
A slashing call on Wellar gave the Aces a six-on-four advantage with the extra attacker for the final 72 seconds.
"That's a tough call in that situation, but it was just another hurdle we had to clear," Bednar said. "It was that final piece of adversity that we had to face."
There were several scrambles and near misses near the Stingrays net, but nothing got past Reimer in the final minute.
It wasn't until Pierre-Luc O'Brien's empty-net goal with 25 seconds left that Bednar began to relax and reflect on what was about to happen. O'Brien skated to the neutral zone and jumped into the arms of Stingrays captain Brad Farynuk, toppling them both to the ice.
"That was probably the hardest I got hit all series," said a laughing Farynuk, who played most of the playoffs with a broken hand. "I just thought Pierre was going to come up and hug me and then he jumps up and the next thing I know I'm on the ice looking up at the ceiling, but what a great feeling at that moment."
Bednar becomes the first person to have his name on the Kelly Cup three times.
"It was a huge relief," said Bednar, who won Kelly Cup titles in 1997 and 2001 as a stay-at-home defenseman. "Pierre's goal was the clincher. That's when we knew we had to get the puck down the ice a couple of times and it was over. It was funny because the time between Stefanishion's goal and Pierre's goal went by really quickly. It wasn't slow.
"It wasn't like that last minute dragged out. It was everything I thought it would be. As a player you're really happy and as a coach you're obviously happy, but you're relieved, too. Mostly, though you're so happy for the players because all of their hard work has paid off."
Reimer, who was named the Kelly Cup playoff MVP, was 3-1 during the final series with a 1.64 goals against average and a .942 save percentage. Reimer had a shutout in Game 4, and had been spectacular before giving up the game-winning goal to Colin Hemingway in Game 5 at the North Charleston Coliseum. After watching Jonathan Boutin make 35 saves in a losing effort in Game 6, Reimer was back in net for the decisive Game 7.
"I had complete confidence in both goalies," Bednar said. "I think everyone in our locker room would have been comfortable with either Jonathan or James in net for Game 7."
Reimer made 26 saves, including four over the final 35 seconds to secure the victory.
"The last 10 seconds seemed to take forever," Reimer said. "I can't say enough about the way the guys played in front of me. All the credit goes to them."
The resiliency the Stingrays showed throughout the playoffs became a matter of course for a team that played with an SPHL goalie and four defensemen for long stretches of the regular season. This was the same Stingrays team that was down 2-0 to Charlotte after the first two games of their best-of-seven opening round series and trailed the Checkers 2-0 after the first period of Game 3.
"There are a lot of guys with a lot of character in our locker room," said defenseman Nate Kiser. "I think that's the thing that gets us through the adversity and tough times."
The Stingrays are now the benchmark by which all other franchises in the ECHL will be measured. To go along with their three Kelly Cup titles, the Stingrays hold the ECHL record for playoff appearances (15), games (139) and wins (77).
"The thing that I'm most proud of is that we did it by committee," Bednar said. "We had a dozen guys that could legitimately have been the MVPs during the playoffs. You could have picked between seven, eight or nine guys for the MVP and no one would have argued with you. They bought into the team concept and what we were trying to do with our program from the outset and this is their reward."
Reach Andrew Miller at email@example.com and check out the Stingrays 'Rays The Roof' blog at www. postandcourier.com/blogs/stingrays.
First Period: 1. SC, Lacroix 13 (Johnson, Morin), 18:45. Penalties: Wellar, SC (interference), :56; Kana, A (interference), 9:08; Kroll, SC (holding), 14:13; Keith, A (slashing), 19:22.
Second Period: 2. SC, Ricci 1 (Farynuk, Scherer), 2:29. 3. A, Galbraith 10 (Hemingway, Martin), 10:04. Penalties: Kiser, SC (interference), 3:58; O'Brien, SC (hooking), 13:13.
Third Period: 4. SC, Campbell 6 (O'Brien, Farynuk), 11:06. 5. A, Stefanishion 6 (Shasby, Soares), 18:15. 6. SC, O'Brien (unassisted), 19:35. Penalties: Burt, A (interference), 3:13; Farynuk, SC (delay of game). 12:15; Wellar, SC (slashing), 18:48.
Shots on Goal: Stingrays 5-12-6-23; Alaska: 8-9-11-28. Penalties: Stingrays 5-10; Alaska 3-6. Power Play: Stingrays 0 for 3; Alaska 0 for 5. Goalies: Stingrays - James Reimer (4-3-0) 28 shots, 26 saves. Alaska - Jean-Philippe Lamoureaux (15-5-0) 22 shots, 19 saves. Att: 6,610.