Few would argue that the South Carolina Stingrays are the hottest team in the ECHL heading into this weekend’s Kelly Cup playoffs.
The Stingrays, who reeled off an ECHL-record 23 straight victories in February and March, are 27-2 over the last 10 weeks as they enter their best-of-seven series against the Reading Royals. Game 1 is set for Friday at the North Charleston Coliseum beginning at 7:05 p.m. Game 2 is Saturday night — same time, same location.
But if the Stingrays are going to capture an ECHL-record fourth Kelly Cup championship, they will have to answer these five questions.
1. Will the Stingrays score enough goals?
The Stingrays were the best defensive team in the ECHL, giving up an ECHL-low 163 goals, a club record. They also allowed the fewest shots per game.
However, the Stingrays struggled to score, especially during the first three months of the season when they ranked near the bottom of the league in offense. The Stingrays finished with 224 goals (3.11 goals per game) during the regular season, which ranked 13th in the league.
Since February, the Stingrays have been averaging more than 3.5 goals a game.
Yes, playoff games tend to be lower scores, but the Stingrays will still need to put the puck in the net, which they’ve done a better job of since the beginning of February.
“You’ve got to be able to score in the playoffs,” said Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery. “Your best players have to be your best players.”
2. Can the Stingrays’ special teams get it done in the playoffs?
In 2009, when the Stingrays won their last Kelly Cup title, they had the top power play in the postseason, converting at 20 percent clip.
While the Stingrays’ power play has improved since early in the season, they’re still ranked near the bottom of the ECHL at 15.3 percent or 24th in the league. The Stingrays need that figure to be closer to the 20 percent mark during the postseason.
“Scoring chances go way down in the playoffs, so when we get a power play, we have to take advantage of it,” Carbery said.
The Stingrays’ penalty kill finished first in the league at 87.7 percent and has been solid all season. No reason to think it’ll falter in the playoffs.
But if the Stingrays make it out of the East Division and face a team like Toledo in the Eastern Conference finals, they can’t afford to get into a special teams battled. Toledo is first in the power play (24.7 percent) and second in the penalty kill (87.1 percent) during the regular season.
3. Can the Stingrays stay healthy?
The injury bug hit the Stingrays around late November and December. They lost several key players for the season including, forwards Joe Diamond and John Mitchell. Throw in Nathan Walker, who most likely would have been in the Lowcountry for the playoffs, and that’s an entire forward line.
The Stingrays have been a much healthier team the last 10 weeks, which should come as no surprise, because that is when they went on their 23-game winning streak.
Going into the playoffs, the biggest injury is to Adam Morrison, who was not included on the Stingrays’ 25-man playoff roster because of a lower body injury.
Defenseman Marcus Perrier and Lee Moffie are questionable against Reading going into Game 1 Friday night.
4. Will the Stingrays get their players back from the American Hockey League?
The AHL’s regular season will end next weekend. The AHL season used to end nearly two weeks later than ECHL’s, but that changed last year.
That’s why ECHL teams have “Eligible” spots on their playoff rosters. But just because a player is on a team’s “Eligible” list doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll end up playing in the playoffs.
The Stingrays have two spots left to fill and five players on their “Eligible” list — Andrew Cherniwchan (Providence), Frankie Simonelli (Providence), Cory Kane (Providence), Scott Ford (Milwaukee) and Brett Cameron (Adirondack). Adirondack is out of the Calder Cup playoffs and Milwaukee not likely to make the postseason as well.
With a blue line that features a couple of college kids already, it’ll be interesting to see what Carbery does with those two spots.
5. Can the Stingrays’ goalies hold up under playoff pressure?
The last two times the Stingrays won the Kelly Cup, they needed two goalies to get the job done.
Sure, they had a No. 1 goalie, but in 2001 Jody Lehman came in and won a series against Louisiana in place of Kirk Daubenspeck, and James Reimer and Jonathan Boutin shared the goalie duties in 2009.
There’s no question that Jeff Jakaitis is the Stingrays’ No. 1 goalie. He won ECHL’s Goalie of the Year honors for the second straight season and the third time in his career this season. With Morrison out and Keegan Asmundson still up in the AHL with Hershey, who will the Stingrays turn to if Jakaitis should stumble?