It was the middle of February and the South Carolina Stingrays were just beginning their historic 23-game winning streak when head coach Spencer Carbery began to tinker with the team’s forward combinations.
Carbery had always been a firm believer in having three balanced lines and had stayed away from “stacking” a line to provide an extra offensive punch. But the Stingrays had struggled scoring during the month of January and he was determined to find a solution. He started swapping players between the three lines and eventually settled on captain Andrew Rowe, Wayne Simpson and rookie Derek DeBlois.
The results were almost instantaneous.
All three players — Rowe, Simpson and DeBlois — started to score in bunches and the Stingrays began to win.
“We’d kind of mixed and matched the lines throughout the year because of injuries and call-ups, but when we put those three together, something clicked,” Carbery said. “It was like the light went on and they just started to put the puck in the back of the net. When that happened we went on that run in February and March.”
By early March teams in the American Hockey League had begun to take notice, and DeBlois and Simpson were called up to the AHL, but Carbery knew eventually they’d return and he had the makings of a top scoring line for the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
As the Stingrays enter the Kelly Cup finals against the Allen Americans — Game 1 is Sunday afternoon at the Allen Event Center in Allen, Texas — the line of Rowe, Simpson and DeBlois is the most potent of the postseason.
They represent three of the top four scorers in the Kelly Cup Playoffs with Simpson (9 goals, 22 assists) leading the postseason with 31 points. Rowe is second with 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) and DeBlois is fourth (10 goals, 14 assists) with 24 points. Simpson’s 31 points broke Dave Seitz’s 14-year franchise mark of 28 playoffs points during the Stingrays’ 2001 Kelly Cup championship season.
“Separated on their own, they bring pretty unique skill sets to the ice,” Carbery said. “Andrew has tremendous overall ability. Skating, puck handling and his hockey sense and his ability to make things happen is second to none in this league. Wayne is an extremely intelligent offensive player and can make plays in crowded areas when he’s under a lot of pressure. He has tremendous ice vision. Derek brings a little bit more grit to the line. He goes to the dirty areas and is physical. He also finishes around the net. He gives the line a harder edge. So they’re a little different individually, but together they are fun to watch.”
The line was at its best against Toledo in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference finals. The trio combined for 35 points (13 goals, 21 assists) during the seven-game series. They accounted for 50 percent of the Stingrays offense (25 goals, 43 assists) during the series.
“Every single time they were on the ice they were dangerous,” Carbery said. “It was impressive to watch. Every night they were the best line on the ice. You’d think it would end one night and then ‘no,’ they’d score again. Then you’d think it would end the next night and ‘no,’ they’d do it again. I’m not sure I’ve seen a line play at such a high level for a prolonged period of time when the stakes were as high as they were against Toledo.’”
And it’s not like the Walleye didn’t try and stop Rowe, Simpson and DeBlois. Toledo head coach Derek Lalonde used different combinations of forwards and defensive pairings to no avail.
“They are so smart and are so hard on the puck, it’s a challenge to try and slow that line down,” Lalonde said. “I think Andrew is the one that makes them go, but Simpson and DeBlois just complement each other so well. They are skilled, they can skate and they can finish. To me, it’s their will to keep plays alive in the offensive zone that makes them so dangerous. They are not the biggest guys, but they are hard on the puck. It’s difficult to knock them off of it. You have to take away time and space if you’re going to have a chance against them.”
Creating chemistry on an offensive line can be a challenge in the ECHL. With injuries and call-ups, a line might not play together very often during the regular season. Combined the trio had spent 36 games in the AHL during the regular season.
“I think we’d been on the same line at one point during the season and our chemistry had kind of been building toward the playoffs,” Rowe said. “We each have our strengths as players and when we get together we just seem to know where each other is on the ice. I’ve never been a part of a line like this, it’s been a lot of fun.”
While Rowe relies on speed and stick handling to score, Simpson excels at dangling a defender, making them look silly during one of his highlight reel goals.
“Wayne is incredible with the puck,” DeBlois said. “Andrew can stick handle too, but Wayne can make you look like you’re standing still out there. He’s got a great shot, but if you’re open he’ll find you.”
DeBlois brings a physical element to the line. A ferocious forechecker, DeBlois does the dirty work for the line.
“No one works harder shift to shift,” Simpson said. “Derek gets in on the forecheck, creates turnovers and goes to the net and scores.”