The Kelly Cup playoffs won't start for another three weeks, but the South Carolina Stingrays got their first taste of the postseason Friday night against the Orlando Solar Bears.
Orlando Solar Bears at South Carolina Stingrays
When: Saturday, 7:05 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Coliseum
Jack Downing scored two third-period goals and Jeff Jakaitis stopped 36 shots to lead the Stingrays past the Solar Bears, 3-1, before a crowd of 3,005 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Stingrays and Solar Bears entered Friday night's game with a single point separating the two teams in the ECHL's South Division. With the victory, the Stingrays improved to 38-19-5 (83 points), while the Solar Bears (37-21-4, 78 points) fell three points behind heading into the final regular season matchup between the two clubs Saturday night.
The Kelly Cup playoffs, which will open up the second week in April, might be a few weeks away, but Friday night's game had the intensity and atmosphere of a postseason match-up.
"I think both teams realize what is at stake this weekend," said Downing, who scored two goals 31 seconds apart in the third period. "These are four-point games. We're battling for first place in the South Division and home ice. This is the last time we play them this season, so these games are huge and both teams played that way."
With nine regular-season games left, the Stingrays are still in contention for home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Stingrays, who led the conference for most of the season, are in second place, trailing Reading by two points.
"Every point is going to be crucial and that makes every game bigger and bigger as we head down the stretch," said Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery. "Points are going to be very tough to come by this time of year, so to get two points out of tonight's game is big. It's a great start to the weekend, but we're not done. We'll see them again (Saturday) and we know they'll really come after us."
Jakaitis, who missed nearly a month with an injury, was sharp from the opening faceoff, stopping all but one Orlando shot.
"It just gives you so much confidence to have him behind you," said Downing, who recorded his 14th and 15th goals of the season. "If you make a mistake, you know that Jeff is going to be there to help clean it up. He was fantastic tonight."
Wayne Simpson gave the Stingrays a 1-0 lead late in the first period, wristing a shot past Orlando goalie Cody Reichard off a faceoff.
After a scoreless second period, the Solar Bears tied the game at 1-1 on Bryce Aneloski's goal just 55 seconds into the final period.
Then Downing went to work.
With less than five minutes left in the third period, Peter Boyd found a trailing Downing coming into the zone. The former University of Vermont blasted a shot past Reichard for the score.
"Great play from (Boyd) after Steve (Spinell) found him in neutral ice," Downing said. "I was just trying to get something on net."
Thirty-one seconds later, Downing gave South Carolina a 3-1 lead with his one-timer on the Stingrays power play.
"We had a couple of our big guns really step up in the third period in Boyd and Downing," Carbery said. "A couple of very skilled plays to get us the lead."
Orlando 0 0 1 - 1
Stingrays 1 0 2 - 3
First Period: 1. SC, Simpson 18 (Oakley), 15:47. Penalties: Jobke, O (boarding, fighting - major), 5:09; Gaul, SC (fighting - major), 5:09; Greiner, SC (interference), 10:29; Greiner, SC (hooking), 17:35.
Second Period: No goals. Penalties: Larson, SC (cross-checking), 4:29; Langdon, SC (high-sticking), 8:06; Orl, O (holding), 11:40; Jobke, O (slashing ), 13:41; Ellis, SC (roughing) 20:00; Cepis, O (roughing), 20:00.
Third Period: 2. O, Aneloski 6 (unassisted) 0:55. 3. SC, Downing 14 (Boyd, Spinell), 16:13. 4. SC, Downing 15 (Ellis, Grimshaw), 16:44 (PP). Penalties: Baier, O (interference), 16:44; Fienhage, O (misconduct), 16:44; Grimshaw, SC (slashing), 18:30.
Shots on Goal: Stingrays 8-12-5-25; Orlando: 15-11-11-37. Penalties: Stingrays 7-17; Orlando 8-35. Power Play: Stingrays 1 for 4; Orlando 0 for 5. Goalies: Stingrays - Jeff Jakaitis (24-10-3) 37 shots, 36 saves. Orlando - Cody Reichard (14-8-6) 25 shots, 22 saves. Att: 3,005.