South Carolina Stingrays hope late surge will carry them into ECHL playoffs

The Stingrays Hunter Bishop, goalie Ryan Zapolski and Kevin Quick guard their goal during their game against the Greenville Road Warriors Friday January 18, 2013 at the North Charleston Coliseum. (Grace Beahm/ Buy this photo

The South Carolina Stingrays have qualified for the Kelly Cup playoffs an ECHL record 18 times.

Today’s Game

WHO: Greenville Road Warriors vs. South Carolina Stingrays

When: 7:05 p.m.

Where: North Charleston Coliseum

Season series: Greenville leads, 4-1-1

Tickets: 744-2248

No other ECHL franchise has won more playoff games (84) or more Kelly Cup championships (3) than the Stingrays.

A month ago, the likelihood of a 19th appearance in the postseason didn’t look good for the Stingrays. Two games below .500, the Stingrays were in 11th place in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference after the all-star break. Only the top eight teams from the Eastern Conference advance to the playoffs.

Too many mistakes, both mental and physical, and inconsistent performances and injuries to key players had plagued the Stingrays.

“Our biggest problem during the first half of the season was that we were making the same mistakes over and over again,” said Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery. “We were not a very consistent team. We’d have a great effort one night and a sub-par effort the next game.”

Four weeks later, South Carolina has righted the ship and become one of the hottest teams in the ECHL. After winning eight of their last 10 games, the Stingrays are back in the hunt for their 19th postseason appearance. They are currently sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a 28-23-5 record.

The Stingrays have put together a string of victories despite missing several key players. Team captain Kevin Quick (Rockford), leading scorer Tyler McNeely (Lake Erie), and Matt Beca (Charlotte) are playing in the American Hockey League.

The Stingrays have also suffered through a rash of concussions. At one point, six players — Mike Hamilton, Ryan Lowery, Andrew Sackrison, Chris Langkow, Damon Kipp and Tyler Johnson — were out with concussions or head injuries.

“I’m really proud of the guys because we’ve fought through a lot of adversity and come out the other end a stronger team,” Carbery said. “Everyone has bought into what we’re trying to do. Everyone is on board and pulling in the same direction. Everyone is sacrificing a part of their game so the team is better.”

Having two of the top goalies in the ECHL hasn’t hurt either. Ryan Zapolski and Jeff Jakaitis are arguably the best goalie duo in the league. Zapolski leads the ECHL in goals against average (1.82) and save percentage (.935). Although Jakaitis (2.27 GAA and .926) hasn’t played in enough games to qualify for ECHL statistics, he isn’t far behind.

“Having those guys back there covers up a lot of mistakes we’ve made in front of them,” said defenseman Scooter Vaughan. “I think we’ve got the two best goalies in the league. We’ve stolen a couple of games because we have them in net for us.”

Carbery has also managed to find hidden talent in the Southern Professional Hockey League. Jay Silva, Brian Elser, Alex McLeod and Patrick Gaul have filled in admirably for the Stingrays over the last month.

None of the South Carolina players currently in the AHL are expected to return for the Stingrays’ three-game series with Greenville, which begins tonight at the North Charleston Coliseum. The Stingrays, however, hope to have Langkow, Johnson, Sackrison and Hayes back on the ice this weekend.

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