The other nine skaters on the ice were probably thinking about overtime. South Carolina Stingrays forward Rob Bellamy had other ideas.
Bellamy scored with 23.1 seconds to play and Jeff Jakaitis made 21 saves to lift South Carolina past Florida, 3-2, in their East Division finals series Tuesday night before a crowd of 1,868 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
With the victory, the Stingrays grabbed a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven ECHL Kelly Cup series and can wrap-up the series Wednesday night in Game 4.
With less than a minute to play, most teams look to play it safe and get to the overtime period. But Bellamy saw an opportunity to end the game in regulation.
Veteran defenseman Scott Ford had the puck at the point, slid it cross-ice to rookie Marcus Perrier. Perrier wound up like he was going to take a shot, but found Bellamy just outside the high slot, Bellamy got just enough of his stick on the puck to slide it under the pads of Florida goalie Allen York for the winning goal.
“I was able to create some speed through the zone and drive the net,” Bellamy said. “Marcus made a great play. I had a guy draped all over my back, but there was a little window and Marcus got me the puck. Luckily the puck somehow found its way between his legs.”
South Carolina coach Spencer Carbery was beginning to think about what the Stingrays would do differently in the overtime period when Bellamy scored.
“We’re just finding different ways to win hockey games this time of year,” Carbery said. “Twenty-three seconds left you’re thinking that this game is automatically going into overtime. We get a big goal from Rob Bellamy. He really steps up huge for us in that situation. That’s the biggest goal he’s scored all season for us.”
For the first time in the series, the Stingrays trailed early in the first period when Nicolas Deschamps scored just 2:23 into the game.
“You don’t like to play from behind against a team like Florida because they are so explosive,” Carbery said. “I didn’t think it was a bad start, but Florida got an opportunity and put it in the back of our net.”
The Stingrays responded seven minutes later when Sean Dolan backhanded a shot past York to tie the game at 1-1 just seconds after the end of a power play.
“We get some traffic in front of York and Dolan goes to the dirty areas and gets a huge goal for us,” Carbery said.
Michal Cajkovsky gave the Stingrays a 2-1 lead with his slap shot at the 7:05 mark of the second period off a beautiful pass from Derek DeBlois.
After killing off a penalty to start the third period, the Everblades found new life when Corey Trivino scored at the 6:20 mark of the second period.
“I thought our third period was very positive, a lot better than the second period,” said Florida coach Greg Poss. “I thought we generated a lot of scoring chances. I thought we got caught out there on a long shift and got a little tired in their final goal. You tend to make mistakes when you get tired and it cost us.”
Carbery said the Stingrays need to end the series Wednesday night in Game 4.
“We can’t let this team off the ropes,” Carbery said. “When you have them down this is not a team you want to fool around with. We want to make sure we come out with the same kind of determination (Wednesday) and the same kind of urgency and end this series. You don’t want to give a team like Florida any life.”