The South Carolina Stingrays open the ECHL playoffs tonight, but if they're going to capture back-to-back Kelly Cup titles, they'll have to answer the following five questions:
1. Can goalie Todd Ford carry a team to a Kelly Cup title?
A major reason Stingrays coach Cail MacLean signed Todd Ford last summer was because of his history in the playoffs, especially against the Rays.
Two years ago, Ford nearly single-handedly beat the Stingrays when he was with the Columbia Inferno. The 6-4, 175-pound Calgary, Alberta, native appeared in all 13 games for
Columbia during the 2007-08 playoffs, posting an 8-4-1 record with a 2.21 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.
He was spectacular against the Stingrays during their five-game series.
"Todd probably deserved a better fate against us in that series," MacLean said. "He stood on his head for five games and was the best player on the ice."
Ford was an ECHL first team all-star this year after compiling an 18-7-2 mark with a 2.79 goals against average and a .910 save percentage during the regular season. Ford spent half of the season in the American Hockey League with Texas and Portland, where he went 7-5-1 with a 2.51 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
A year ago it was Jonathan Boutin and James Reimer who anchored the Stingrays in net. Remier earned Kelly Cup MVP honors.
Ford was sent down to the Stingrays on Monday from Portland and is expected to start tonight in Game 1 against Cincinnati.
"Every team needs a hot goalie to win a championship, and we need for Todd to be at his best if we're going to make a run at another championship," MacLean said.
2. Will the Stingrays get all of their players back from the American Hockey League?
In early March, there were as many as nine Stingrays players in the AHL.
As the playoffs got closer, the players began to trickle back into the Stingrays lineup. Defenseman Dylan Yeo and forwards Michael Dubuc and Nikita Kashirsky returned a week ago. The return of Ford on Monday is crucial for the Stingrays.
"You build your team from the net out," MacLean said. "Ford is a difference-maker."
The only two remaining players of note in the AHL are defenseman Zach Tarkir and forward Matt Fornataro -- both with Norfolk. Tarkir was listed on the Rays' 23-man playoff roster, while Fornataro was left off. Tarkir will join the Stingrays once Norfolk's season is over.
3. Can the Stingrays' inexperienced blue line get the job done?
A year ago, the Stingrays had Brad Farynuk, Scott Romfo, Patrick Wellar and Nate Kiser on the blue line; all guys with three years of professional experience under their belts. Tonight, just Kiser and Dylan Yeo will have three years of pro experience. Grant Farrell and Jason Fredericks are rookies, and Jeff Caister and Derek Keller were playing for St. Lawrence University last month.
"We're going to need for some guys to grow up quickly in the playoffs," said MacLean.
4. Can the special teams get it done in the playoffs?
The Stingrays finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 on the power play (8th, 19.2 percent) and penalty kill (6th, 82.6). Solid, but not great numbers.
"I think our penalty kill has been pretty consistent all season," MacLean said. "Our power play has been really up and down. Some of that can be blamed on the callups, but you've got to have guys step up when your short-handed."
5. Can the Stingrays score enough goals?
Defense might win championships, but you have to score once in a while.
The Stingrays scored 248 goals during the regular season, 8th overall in the ECHL and 5th in the American Conference.
Take away Fornataro, who was the Rays' top scorer when he left for the AHL, and that's a big void to fill. The Stingrays have four 20-goal scorers, and Kashirsky had 19 at season's end and would have easily eclipsed the 20-goal plateau had he not spent two months in the AHL.
Reach Andrew Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.