Going into the third weekend of January, the South Carolina Stingrays were three games below .500 and going nowhere.
Almost two months later, the Stingrays are going to the Kelly Cup playoffs for an ECHL record 19th time.
Ryan Zapolski stopped 37 shots and five different skaters scored to lead South Carolina past Gwinnett, 5-1, Friday night before a raucous crowd of 8,064 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
With the victory, the Stingrays improved to 36-25-8 (80 points) and moved into a tie for fourth place in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference. The Gladiators, who lead the South Division, dropped to 41-25-3 (85 points).
South Carolina’s victory, coupled with losses by Kalamazoo and Wheeling, assured the Stingrays of a spot in next month’s Kelly Cup playoffs. The Stingrays have made the postseason 19 times in 20 seasons. The Stingrays are 14-3-4 since the start of February.
Two months ago, the postseason was anything but assured for the Stingrays. At the ECHL All-Star break, Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery told his team that they would need at least 18 wins to get into the postseason. The Stingrays have 17 wins with three games left in the regular season.
“I couldn’t be prouder or more happy for the guys in our locker room,” Carbery said. “They have worked their butts off since the all-star break. They’ve bought into what we’re doing here and the last months have been fun to watch.”
South Carolina forward Scooter Vaughen, who had the Stingrays second goal, said it took a while, but the team finally gelled together at the right time of the season.
“It was almost too late, but everyone bought in,” said Vaughen, who scored his fifth goal of the season. “Spencer told us we needed to win the majority of our games in the second half of the season to have a chance at the playoffs and we all came together as a group and decided to play our butts off the rest of the season.”
The Stingrays got off to a slow start as Gwinnett dominated the action, getting 16 shots on goal during the first period. But like most of the season, Zapolski was there to keep the Stingrays in the game, stopping every shot he saw.
“That’s my job,” said Zapolski, who improved to 26-10-2. “I saw some shots early, but that got me into it and got me going.”
The Stingrays didn’t get many shots, but capitalized on the few they got, getting goals from Patrick Gaul and Vaughen in the first period.
Gwinnett 0 1 0 — 1
South Carolina 2 3 0 — 5
First Period: 1. SC, Gaul 6 (Kipp, Sackrison), 5:20. 2. SC, Vaughan 5 (Silvia, Langkow), 8:03. Penalties: Brookwell, G (hooking), 13:33; Murovich, G (roughing), 18:27; Button, SC (roughing), 18:27.
Second Period: 3. SC, Kipp 5 (unassisted) 0:29. 4. SC, Langkow 19 (McGinnis), 1:27. 5. SC, Boyd 20 (MacLeod, Dee), 5:19. 6. G, Jones 22 (Weller), 11:48 (SH). Penalties: Llewellyn, G (hooking), 6:18; Donald, G (cross-checking), 10:45; Monardo, G (hooking), 13:39; MacLeod, SC (delay of game), 17:19.
Third Period: No goals. Penalties: Guimond, G (hooking), 0:46; Fienhage, G (delay of game), 2:23; Button, SC (roughing), 18:24. Shots on Goal: Stingrays 7-13-7-27; Gwinnett: 16-8-14-38. Penalties: Stingrays 3-6; Gwinnett 7-14. Power Play: Stingrays 0 for 6; Gwinnett 0 for 2. Goalies: Stingrays – Ryan Zapolski (26-10-2) 38 shots, 37 saves. Gwinnett – Mike Lee (14-12-1) 10 shots, 6 saves. Jody O’Neill (5-2-0) 17 shots, 16 saves. Att: 8,064.
“I thought we got a little outplayed in the first period, but when we got our chances we finished,” Carbery said. “Ryan was fantastic again. He had some issues with his rebound control early, but he kept us in the game.”
When Damon Kipp less than 30 seconds into the second period to give the Stingrays a 3-0 advantage the momentum clearly swung in South Carolina’s favor. Peter Boyd scored after Kipp to give the Stingrays a 4-0 cushion.
Kipp and Chris Langkow led the way offensively for the Stingrays with a goal an and assist each.
“It was nice to see our skill guys finish,” Carbery said. “We need those guys to be confident going into the playoffs.”