The South Carolina Stingrays open their quest for an ECHL-record fourth Kelly Cup championship tonight against the Gwinnett Gladiators.
No. 3 Gwinnett Gladiators vs. No. 6 South Carolina StingraysGame 1: Today at Gwinnett (7:30 p.m.)Game 2: Saturday at Gwinnett (7:05 p.m.)Game 3: April 10 at South Carolina (7:05 p.m.)Game 4: April 12 at South Carolina (7:05 p.m.)*Game 5: April 13 at South Carolina (7:05 p.m.)*Game 6: April 16 at Gwinnett (7:05 p.m.)*Game 7: April 17 at Gwinnett (7:05 p.m.)*-if necessary
If the Stingrays are going to get past the Gladiators and on their way to hoisting the Kelly Cup trophy, they’ll have to answer these five questions?
1. Can the Stingrays stay healthy?
This has been the Stingrays’ biggest issue all season. Nine different Stingray players suffered at least one concussion and two players were knocked out twice with head injuries. That makes 11 concussions, which is an unofficial ECHL record.
Mike Hamilton (concussion), Ryan Lowery (concussion), Cameron Brodie (concussion) and Ryan McGinnis (knee) are done for the year and won’t play in the postseason.
That’s a pretty big chunk of the Stingrays’ roster out of the lineup already. The Stingrays can’t afford to lose many more players.
“I don’t know how many man games we lost because of injuries, but I bet we led the ECHL this season,” said Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery.
2. Will the Stingrays get their players back from the American Hockey League?
The AHL’s regular season is two weeks longer than the ECHL season. The AHL season used to end just a week later than ECHL’s, but that changed last year.
That’s why ECHL teams have “Eligible” spots on their playoff rosters. But just because a player is on a team’s “Eligible” list doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll end up playing in the playoffs.
The Stingrays have two spots left to fill and four players on their “Eligible” list – Tommy Cross, Tyler Randell, Hunter Bishop and Tyler McNeely.
They’ve already received Ryan Grimshaw (Toronto) and Alden Hirschfeld (Providence) from the AHL this week. The return of Bishop (Manchester) and McNeely (Lake Erie), who were the Stingrays’ top two scorers during the regular-season, will give the team a huge lift offensively.
3. Will the Stingrays score enough goals?
The Stingrays were the best defensive team in the ECHL, giving up an ECHL-low 171 goals.
However, the Stingrays were also near the bottom of the league in goals scored with 191. Only four teams scored fewer goals than the Stingrays during the regular season.
Yes, playoff games tend to be lower scorer, but the Stingrays will still need to put the puck in the net, which makes the return of McNeely (44 points) and Bishop (49 points) so crucial.
4. Can the Stingrays special teams get it done in the playoffs?
In 2009, when the Stingrays won their last Kelly Cup title they had the top power play in the playoffs, converting at 20 percent.
With a lack of scoring, the Stingrays will need their power play to hitting on all cylinders. The Stingrays’ power play, which improved over the final two months, ended the regular season in 10th place in the ECHL at 18.3 percent.
“Scoring chances go way down in the playoffs, so when we get a power play, we have to take advantage of it,” Carbery said.
5. Can the Stingrays goalies hold up under playoff pressure?
South Carolina rookie goalie Ryan Zapolski has garnered every major award, including Rookie of the Year and Goalie of the Year.
If anyone is equipped to put a team on his back and lead them to a championship it’s Zapolski. He tied and ECHL record with eight shutouts and had a 1.64 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage.
But the playoffs are a different animal altogether.
Of course if Zapolski falters, there’s always Jeff Jakaitis. He’s the 2011-12 ECHL Goalie of the Year.
“We’ve got confidence in both of our goalies,” Carbery said.
The Stingrays Hunter Bishop is tailed by the Road Warriors Jordie Johnston Friday January 18, 2013 at the North Charleston Coliseum. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)×
The Stingrays goalie Ryan Zapolski deflects the shot from the goal as they play the Road Warriors Friday January 18, 2013 at the North Charleston Coliseum. (Grace Beahm/postandcourier.com)×