Three times the South Carolina Stingrays found themselves trailing to the Reading Royals in Game 5 Sunday afternoon at Santander Arena.
And three times the Stingrays fought their way back to tie the game.
Rookie forward Derek BeBlois broke the last tie, scoring with 1:21 left to play in regulation to lead South Carolina past Reading, 4-3, in the ECHL’s East Division semifinals Sunday at Santander Arena in Reading, Pa.
Goaltender Jeff Jakaitis stopped 24 shots for the Stingrays, who lead the series, 3-2, and can wrap-up the best-of-7 series with a victory in Game 6 Tuesday night at the North Charleston Coliseum at 7:05 p.m. Game 7, if necessary would be Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum.
“To be honest, this was probably the best game we’ve played all series,” said South Carolina coach Spencer Carbery. “I thought we played really well and carried the play for the majority of the game. Give Reading credit — they were very opportunistic, and when they got a chance, they buried it in the back of our net. I thought besides a five-minute stretch there in the third period, we played really well.”
Even when the Stingrays trailed, Carbery said there was a sense of calm on the bench and in the locker room between periods.
“We’ve been a very resilient team the second half of the season and you could just feel it on the bench,” Carbery said. “There wasn’t any panic on the bench. We were focused and guys fully expected to go out there in the third period and win the game. We just stuck to our game plan and found a way to win like we’ve been doing since the beginning of February. We got a ton of chances early in the game and just couldn’t score. We showed a lot of perseverance throughout this game.”
DeBlois’ game-winner came at the end of a shift. As the clock wound down, an exhausted Stingrays line forced a turnover below the goal line, where DeBlois curled around the right post and beat Reading goalie Connor Knapp for the game-winner.
“It was one of those playoff goals you can get this time of year,” Carbery said. “He stepped out from behind the net, beat the defenseman and put a shot on net with some traffic out in front. Shooting the puck in those circumstances is never a bad thing to do this time of year.”
The Royals opened the scoring 8:10 into the first period when defenseman Mike Marcou buried a rebound past Jakaitis.
Stingrays forward Wayne Simpson tied the contest seven minutes later, batting the puck out of the air and past the glove of Knapp with less than five minutes to play in the opening period. Defenseman Lee Moffie, who made his postseason debut Sunday, earned the primary assist and forward Caleb Herbert added the second.
Royals forward Cam Reid made it 2-1 on the power play early in the third period, lifting a second opportunity past the right pad of Jakaitis at 2:37. The Stingrays made it 2-2 less than two minutes later when forward Joe Devin caught a pass from defenseman Frankie Simonelli to beat Knapp under the blocker from between the faceoff circles at 4:08.
Reading forward Sean Wiles reclaimed the lead for the Royals at 9:17.
The Stingrays continued to battle heading into the third period and were rewarded at the 7:10 mark as forward Andrew Rowe buried the game-tying goal over the glove of Knapp with help from Simpson and Herbert.
The Royals received a power-play and pulled Knapp for the extra skater with 58 seconds to go to skate 6-on-4, but Devin and the Stingrays’ defense blocked multiple opportunities to seal the victory.
“At that point, you’re just trying to do anything you can to keep the puck out of your net,” Carbery said. “Guys really sacrificed their bodies in that final minute.”
The Stingrays can win their first Kelly Cup playoff series since 2012 with a victory Tuesday night in Game 6.
“I don’t think we’re going to have any issues refocusing and getting ready for Game 6,” Carbery said. “Reading is a veteran team and they are not going to lay down for us. We’re going to have to earn this win. It’s been a like a heavyweight fight. We hit them and they get up and hit us back. It’s been like that all series. Each time we think we’ve got control of the series, Reading has responded, and I don’t expect anything different Tuesday night. We’re going to get their best game.”