Stingrays on brink of elimination

South Carolina Stingrays goalie Ryan Zapolski tries to make his defense impenetrable against the Gwinett Gladiators at the North Charleston Coliseum 3-1 in a playoff game Wednesday night April 10, 2013. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com) Buy this photo

Gwinnett captain Andy Brandt can remember going through the handshake line last season against South Carolina.

Gwinnett vs. South Carolina

Gwinnett vs. South Carolina

What: Game 4

When: Tonight, 7 p.m.

Where: North Charleston Coliseum

Series: Gwinnett leads, 3-0

Tickets: 744-2248

The Gladiators had been heavy favorites in their opening round ECHL Kelly Cup playoff series with the Stingrays. Gwinnett had won the ECHL’s South Division and was the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Stingrays, the seventh-seed, had squeaked into the playoffs and finished fourth in the South Division.

But the Stingrays upset the Gladiators, winning two games in overtime and ending Gwinnett’s postseason almost before it had begun.

It’s a memory that has stuck with Brandt for a year.

Gwinnett faced a similar playoff scenario this postseason. The Gladiators won the South for the second straight year and again faced a lower-seeded Stingrays squad.

But unlike last season, the Gladiators have won the first three games of this year’s series and can eliminate the Stingrays from the Kelly Cup playoffs tonight with a victory. Game 4 of their best-of-seven series is set for 7 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum.

“I gotta admit the loss to (South Carolina) stung for a long time,” Brandt said this week. “To lose like we did, to lose two overtime games, was a bitter pill to swallow. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’ve got to come with the same intensity and work ethic we’ve had the last three games.”

South Carolina captain Kevin Quick said if the Stingrays are going to get back into the series, they will have to start from the opening shift tonight. The Gladiators have scored first in each game during the series. It’s a trend that cannot continue, Quick said.

“They beat us in Game 1. We gave them Game 2 and they got a lucky bounce in Game 3,” Quick said. “Right now we’re not stepping up to the challenge. We’ve been playing so well the last two months, but so far in the playoffs we’re back on our heels. We’re sitting back. It’s not us. We need to step up our game big time.”

The Stingrays spent most of Thursday watching video of Game 3 and then looking at highlights from games in February and March, when they were among the hottest teams in the ECHL.

“We’re not playing good hockey right now and we’ve got to get back to what we were doing at the end of the season,” Quick said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys, a lot of rookies who don’t know a thing about playoff hockey. We need some of the older guys to start stepping up and become leaders out there.”

Gwinnett coach John Wroblewski knows delivering the knockout punch to the Stingrays on their home ice won’t be easy.

“South Carolina is a very hard working team,” Wroblewski said. “We have to make sure we respect that and match that work ethic and realize how hard they’re going to come out on their home ice in an elimination game.”

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