For 40 minutes, the South Carolina Stingrays dominated the Reading Royals.
Normally, 40 minutes would be enough to win, especially during the Stingrays’ record-breaking 23-game winning streak during the regular season.
But this isn’t the regular season and 40 minutes of good hockey won’t be enough in the Kelly Cup playoffs against a team as good as Reading.
Jordan Heywood scored two goals and Connor Knapp stopped 33 shots as the Royals defeated the Stingrays, 4-2, in Game 2 of their Eastern Division semifinal series Saturday night before a crowd of 2,790 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The best-of-seven series is tied at 1-1 as the series shifts to Santander Arena in Reading, Penn., for Games 3, 4, and 5.
For the second straight game, the Stingrays got off to a sluggish start.
The slow start didn’t hurt the Stingrays during their 2-1 double-overtime win in Game 1 on Friday night . Game 2 was a different story as the Royal scored three goals and held a 3-0 lead after just 20 minutes.
“You can’t spot a team three goals in the first period and expect to win a playoff game,” said South Carolina coach Spencer Carbery. “Even as good as we played over the final 40 minutes, it’s not going to matter. When you give up three goals in the first period and put ourselves in a hole like that, it’s a very difficult spot to climb out of.
“We were getting physically manhandled in the first period. We were making poor decisions and poor reads and those mistakes were ending up in the back of our net. We were not ready to play in playoff mode. We were not ready to answer the bell.”
Heywood scored twice and Brandon Alderson had the other goal as the Royals seemed to have their way in the Stingrays’ defensive zone during the opening period.
“Obviously we dug ourselves a huge hole in the first period,” said Stingrays forward Sean Dolan, who finished with a goal and an assist. “It’s a long series and they are going have pushes when they come at us and we’re going to have pushes when we come at them. It’s about weathering those pushes and those storms and we didn’t weather them very well in that first period.”
When the Stingrays finally decided to push back in the second period, they came back with a vengeance, outshooting the Royals, 24-8, over the final 40 minutes. Brandon Wong appeared to score just minutes into the second period, but his goal was disallowed after referee Peter McDougall ruled that Dolan had interfered with Knapp’s ability to make the save.
“It was a terrible call,” Carbery said. “That’s a goal. Sean was just driving through and didn’t make any purposeful contact. It should have been a goal, but having said that we got two goals later so that was inconsequential.”
Two minutes later Dolan scored, cutting the gap to 3-1 at the 6:38 mark of the second period.
The Stingrays continued to pressure as forward Joe Devin scored for the second time during the series with less than four minutes left in the second period. Devin was able to settle a bouncing puck between the circles and slide it between the legs of Knapp with help from defenseman Scott Ford and forward Dolan.
Any hopes of a Stingrays comeback were put to rest as Royals forward Ryan Cruthers scored early in the third period.
The Stingrays peppered Knapp with 12 more shots and pulled Jakaitis for an extra skater, but the Royals held on to even the series.
“Hopefully, we can build on what we did in the second and third periods,” Carbery said. “We need to get off to better starts.”