The 12-hour bus ride from Toledo, Ohio, just got a little shorter for the South Carolina Stingrays.
Joe Devin scored five minutes and 35 seconds into the third overtime period to lift South Carolina past Toledo, 1-0, in Game 7 of the ECHL Kelly Cup Eastern Conference finals before a sellout crowd of more than 8,300 at the Huntington Center, in Toledo, Ohio, Wednesday night.
The Stingrays, who led the series 3-0 at one point, captured the Eastern Conference finals, 4-3, and advance to the club’s fourth Kelly Cup finals. The Stingrays, who won Kelly Cup titles in 1997, 2001 and 2009, will face the Allen Americans. The Americans defeated Ontario, 3-1, Wednesday in another Game 7 in the Western Conference finals.
The seven-game Kelly Cup finals will be played under a 3-3-1 format with the first three games taking place in Allen, Texas. The Stingrays will host games on June 7, 9, and 10. Game 1 of the Kelly Cup finals will be Sunday at the Allen Event Center. Game 2 will be June 2.
It was a fitting end to a classic series between two closely matched clubs. Each of the seven games during the series was decided by a single goal and four times the two teams needed overtime to settle the outcome. The Stingrays scored just one more goal, 25-24, than the Walleye during the series. The Stingrays won the first three games of the series, only to have the Walleye answer with three straight victories of their own to set up Game 7 Wednesday night.
“It was an epic series,” said South Carolina Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery. “The guys competed so hard tonight and laid it all out on the line for one another. I’m so proud of the way the guys played tonight. It was kind of a weird series, with some weird bounces and I think that’s what helped inflate some of the scoring. I think (Wednesday) was the kind of game everyone expected throughout the whole series.
“One bounce, one mistake ended up being the difference in the series and that’s what usually happens in a Game 7. Toledo has a great hockey club. The guys came into a hostile environment and just competed as hard as they ever have with their season on the line. I couldn’t be proud of them.”
Stingrays goalie Jeff Jakaitis, who had given up 20 goals in his last four starts, returned to his ECHL MVP and goalie of the year form in Game 7. Jakaitis made 44 saves and recorded his first shutout of the playoffs after leading the ECHL in that category with seven during the regular season.
“When Joe scored that goal I will never forget the look on Jeff’s face as long as I live,” Carbery said. “What an unbelievable bounce back performance for Jeff after having a couple of starts that I’m sure were not up to his standards. When we needed it most tonight, he just made big save after big save and carried us to this victory. I’m so proud of the way he responded in Game 7 when our season was on the line.”
Stingrays’ game winner came just moments after Toledo forward Martin Frk missed an open net that would have given the Walleye the victory and the series. The Stingrays raced down the ice and Devin caught a drop pass from forward Caleb Herbert, stepped past a Walleye defender, and beat Lerg under the blocker for the game-winning goal.
“What’s going to get lost in Joe’s goal is that Caleb took a huge hit at the blue line that opened everything up for Joe,” Carbery said, “Caleb drew a couple of Toledo defenders to him and Joe had an odd man rush. What a shot from Joe. He made no doubt about it, post and in.”
The Stingrays poured over the bench and mobbed Devin.
“It was just an incredible finish to a great series,” Carbery said. “Both teams had some chances throughout the game. It comes down to one bounce and a great shot from Joe Devin to get us into the finals.”
Back on Feb. 6, the Stingrays were 18-18-7 and fighting for a playoff spot. The next night the Stingrays beat the Greenville, 7-1, and wouldn’t lose again until April, setting an ECHL record 23-game winning streak. Four months later, the Stingrays are going to play for league’s ultimate prize.
“I think about where we were that weekend going into the Greenville game and how far we’ve come since then,” Carbery said. “To see this group come together and play like they have the last four months has been incredible.”
Carbery doesn’t know much about the Americans.
“I’m going to enjoy this win on the bus ride home and start to worry about Allen (Thursday),” Carbery said. “I know they’ve got a highly skilled team, but that’s about all I know about them now.”