For the second straight year, the South Carolina Stingrays enter the Kelly Cup playoffs as the hottest team in the league.
A year ago, the Stingrays reeled off an ECHL-record 23 straight regular-season victories on their way to the making the Kelly Cup finals before losing in Game 7 to the Allen Americans.
This year, the Stingrays have been the best team in the ECHL since the beginning of February, going 23-2-5 over their last 30 games as they open their best-of-seven series on Friday against the Kalamazoo K-Wings. Because of scheduling conflicts at the North Charleston Coliseum, the first three games of the series will be in Kalamazoo.
If the Stingrays are going to capture an ECHL-record fourth Kelly Cup championship, they will have to answer these five questions.
The line of Andrew Rowe, Wayne Simpson and Derek DeBlois carried the Stingrays to the Kelly Cup finals last spring. The trio finished as the top three scorers in last year’s playoffs.
Only DeBlois will be in the starting lineup in Game 1 Friday night Kalamazoo. Rowe and Simpson are both in the American Hockey League, but that doesn’t mean the Stingrays are without talent as they head into the postseason.
The Stingrays top line of Brett Cameron, David Pacan and Stephan Vigier each recorded 20 goals during the regular season. Defenseman Joey Leach had the league’s top plus-minus rating at a plus-40.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a line produce like that Rowe-DeBlois-Simpson line did last year in the playoffs,” said Stingrays head coach Spencer Carbery. “It’s not like we’re going to need a line to do that again this year, but our best players have to be our best players. Joey Leach, in my opinion, was the best defenseman in the league and we need him to play like it during the playoffs. We need all of our top guys to step up.”
The Rowe-Simpson-DeBlois line was dominant, but it had to be.
The Stingrays got very little production from the rest of their lineup a year ago. Joe Devin certainly did his part, scoring game-winning overtime goals in just about every series, but there was little consistency from the rest of the roster.
“I think we’ve got a much deeper team this year than we did last year,” Carbery said. “I think we’ve got three lines that can produce and we’ve got a couple of defensemen that can jump into the rush.”
The addition of DeBlois, Caleb Herbert and Kelly Zajac has helped give the Stingrays a solid second line that can score. Even the third line of Patrick Gaul, Jared Staal and Marcus Perrier have been able to chip in offensively.
The Stingrays’ second and third lines will be crucial as the Stingrays make their through the playoffs.
A year ago, the Stingrays advanced to the Kelly Cup finals despite less than stellar play on special teams.
The Stingrays were 10th out of 16 teams on the power play in the postseason, converting at a 16.7 percent clip. In comparison, in 2009, the last time the Stingrays won their last Kelly Cup title, they had the top power play in the postseason, converting at 20 percent rate.
At one point in the regular season this year, the Stingrays power play was near the bottom of the league, converting on less than 10 percent of its chances. The Stingrays finished the year at 19.6 percent, which was good enough for fourth place overall.
For the second straight year the Stingrays’ finished the regular-season with the top-ranked penalty kill in the league at 87.5 percent. But killing penalties was an issue during the playoffs last spring as the Stingrays killed off at a 79.1 percent rate, which was next to last in the postseason.
The Stingrays have managed to avoid injuries for large chunks of the season.
Max Sauve left early in the year after suffering a concussion and Trevor Gillies missed the first two months with a shoulder injury, but the Stingrays are relatively healthy headed into the playoffs.
Defenseman Spencer Humphries and Cameron are the only players that might not be in the lineup Friday night for Game 1.
“We’re hoping that Brett will be able to play, but Spencer is probably doubtful,” Carbery said.
The biggest injury is to Rowe, who has spent most of the season in the AHL with the Bridgeport, but has been out of the lineup since February with a broken leg. Rowe is expected to be able to start skating by the end of the month, but his earliest return wouldn’t be until the second round of the playoffs and that’s contingent on Bridgeport’s AHL playoff run.
“Staying healthy is crucial this time of year,” Carbery said. “You’re going to have guys that are going to play through some injuries.”
The last two times the Stingrays won the Kelly Cup, they needed two goalies to get the job done.
Both times the Stingrays had a designated No. 1 goalie, but in 2001 Jody Lehman came off the bench and won a series against Louisiana in place of Kirk Daubenspeck. In 2009, James Reimer and Jonathan Boutin shared the goalie duties in 2009.
A year ago, Jeff Jakaitis, the league MVP and goalie of the year, started all 27 games for the Stingrays. By the Kelly Cup finals, fatigued had begun to set in and that was never more evident than in the Game 7 against Allen.
Mark Dekanich (20-9-4, 2.16 GAA, .925) and Vitek Vanecek (18-7-6, 2.10 GAA, .917) were ranked among the top-5 during the regular-season in just about every major statistical category.
Both will be needed to get the Stingrays back to the Kelly Cup finals.
Carbery hasn’t said who will start in Game 1 Friday night against Kalamazoo.
“We feel very good about both of our goalies,” Carbery said. “We feel like we’ve got two No. 1 starters. At some point both goalies are going to have to play and become a factor for us.”