South Carolina Stingrays captain Joey Leach knew there were going to be some growing pains this season.
While there is always roster turnover from season-to-season in the ECHL, the Stingrays lost a huge chunk of their core leadership group from a year ago.
Gone from the ice, and more importantly, from the locker room are former captain Joe Devin, forward Kelly Zajac, goalie Jeff Jakaitis, defenseman Danny Federico and tough guy Trevor Gillies. Throw in defenseman Frankie Simonelli and the Stingrays lost more than 1,000 games of ECHL experience from last year’s squad that set a franchise record with 48 wins during the regular season.
Then add a new coach in Spiros Anastas, who has no coaching experience in the ECHL, and it was a formula for a slow start to the season. As the Stingrays adjusted to a new system under Anastas and new faces on the ice, South Carolina hovered around the .500 mark for much of the first seven weeks of the season.
Anastas didn’t panic when the Stingrays were 10-10-0 after 20 games. He knew the Stingrays, whose roster was littered with rookies, would eventually figure things out.
Anastas’ patience with his young team has been rewarded of late as the Stingrays appear to have found their stride in the last couple of weeks.
With Wednesday night’s 3-2 shootout win over Atlanta at the North Charleston Coliseum, the Stingrays (15-11-0) have won four straight games and seven of the last 10 and have moved into second place in the ECHL’s South Division.
“It seems like in years past we’ve always had a lot of guys returning for the previous year,” said Leach, who had two assists in the Stingrays win on Wednesday night. “Not having guys like Joe, and Kelly and Jeff and Trevor in the locker room and on the ice is a loss, but we’ve got some young guys that are starting to step up and learn what it takes to be a professional at this level.”
While this was South Carolina’s third straight win against Atlanta, which is at the bottom of the South Division, in last five days, the Stingrays have also recorded victories over first-place Florida and Jacksonville, which led the division early in the season, in the last two weeks.
“It always tough to go to Florida and get a win and to get another one against Jacksonville, a team that had our number to start the season, was nice because they were ahead of us in the standings for a while,” Leach said. “I think we’ve put in the hard work in the last month and that hard work is starting to show up during the games. We’re starting to come together as a team.”
As well as the Stingrays have played lately, Anastas is far from satisfied with the team’s performance.
“I think we’re getting more battled test and learning how to win in tough situations,” Anastas said. “The only problem is that we’re putting ourselves in tough situations and tough battles. While we’re getting better at responding to those tough situations, we’re still not overly thrilled at putting ourselves in those situations. It is coming together, but we’ve still got to do a better job of playing more consistently. We’re a process team and we just played three tough games against the last place team in our division. What that tells me is that our process isn’t where it needs to be to play a full 60-minute game.”
The Stingrays have won lately without many of their key affiliated players. For the first time in recent memory, the Stingrays played a game without an American Hockey League affiliated player on the ice. In years past, the Stingrays have had as many as eight or nine players from the Hershey Bears, the Stingrays AHL affiliate, in the lineup for a single game.
South Carolina’s roster on Wednesday featured eight players that played in the Southern Professional Hockey League this year or last season.
“We’re not worried about who we’re getting from Hershey or Washington,” Anastas said. “We can only worry about the 18 guys we’ve got here and on the ice playing for the South Carolina Stingrays.”
Tad Kuzon, who had two assists in the Stingrays victory against Atlanta, is one of those players that has stepped up recently. Kozun, who was a healthy scratch at the beginning of the year, has seven goals and 10 assists in 17 games this season.
“Tad is a great story for us,” Anastas said. “He was in and out of the lineup at the beginning of the year, but when he got his chance he stepped up and made the most of it.”
First star: Andrew Cherniwchan, Stingrays. Cherniwchan gave the Stingrays a 2-0 lead just 12 seconds into the third period. Cherniwchan leads the Stingrays in scoring with 25 points on 10 goals and 15 assists.
Second star: Tyler, Deresky, Gladiators. Deresky, who came into the game with just one goal in 15 games, scored back-to-back goals for the Gladiators in the third period.
Third star: Tad Kozun, Stingrays. Kozun had two assists, including the primary assist on Cherniwchan’s power play goal to start the third period.
The Stingrays will wrap-up their homestand Saturday night against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits beginning at 7:05 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum.
South Carolina will head out on the road for four-straight games before the Christmas break.