The time for scoreboard watching has come to an end for the South Carolina Stingrays.
The scenario is simple for the minor league hockey team. Beat the Atlanta Gladiators twice over the next 48 hours and advance to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup playoffs for a league-record 25th time. Lose either game in regulation and the season is over, which would be only the second time in the franchise's 26-year history that it didn't qualify for the playoffs.
The Stingrays (33-31-6, 72 points) will take on the Gladiators (31-28-11, 73 points) Saturday at 7:05 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum in the first of two games that will determine the playoff fate for both clubs. The season finale will be Sunday afternoon at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth, Ga., at 3:05 p.m.
“Everyone knows the magnitude of the weekend and everyone is excited about it,” said South Carolina coach Spiros Anastas. “The energy in our practices, in our locker room and in our video sessions all week has been right where it needs to be. I think everyone is dialed in and it’s like the playoffs have already started.”
This wasn't the way Anastas envisioned his first season as the Stingrays head coach playing out. No team in the ECHL has won more Kelly Cup titles (3), made more final appearances (5), played in more postseason games (233), won more playoff games (122) or been in more postseasons (24) than the Stingrays.
But things were not looking good for the Stingrays or their coach in February, when the team managed to win just one game in the entire month. Players were frustrated and fans were angry, some booing Anastas during pregame introductions.
Then a late-season surge put the Stingrays back in playoff contention.
"Are people going to call for my head if we don't make the playoffs? Probably," Anastas said. "That's not something I can worry about. I know the history and tradition of this franchise, but I can't get caught up in the 25 times in 26 years thing. I have to focus on the job at hand and that starts with getting two points Saturday night against Atlanta.
"I'm confident as a coach and I'm confident in this team and where we are right now. I think you've always got to adapt in this profession to become a better coach. The pressure I feel this weekend is the same pressure I felt on opening night."
The Gladiators hold a one-point lead over the Stingrays for the fourth and final playoff spot in the ECHL’s South Division. There is a scenario where the Stingrays can get into the playoffs with a regulation win and an overtime or shootout loss against Atlanta this weekend. The Stingrays hold the tiebreaker with Atlanta, having gone 7-1-4 against the Gladiators during the regular season. South Carolina can even jump into third place in the South Division if it wins both games and Jacksonville loses its two games against Orlando and Florida.
But South Carolina captain Joey Leach isn’t into playing the ‘what if’ game.
“The easiest way to look at it is we’ve got to win two more hockey games to keep our season alive,” Leach said. “That’s the mindset we’ve got to have going into these two games. I know there are some other scenarios out there, but that’s what we can control and that’s got to be our focus.”
A sentiment shared by Anastas.
“A couple of weeks ago we probably started scoreboard watching and I think that crept into our locker room a little bit,” Anastas said. “Now, we’re just focusing on our job. Whether we’re fourth or third, we know we’re going to have to play a good hockey team if we make the playoffs. The path won’t be easy no matter who we face, we’re just focused on getting into the dance."
Over the past month, the Stingrays have almost totally revamped their defensive core. Through trades and college signings, the Stingrays have added Steven Johnson, Ryker Killins, Cameron Heath, Miles Liberati and signed Cornell standout Matt Nuttle, who will be in the lineup Saturday night. Kevin McKernan, a rookie, returned to the ice after missing 10 games with an injury.
“We’ve spent most of this week in practice working on our execution,” Leach said. “Going over our game plan and making sure everyone is on the same page because that’s going to be important.”
The time for big motivational speeches is long gone.
“At this point in the season, there’s not a whole lot you can say,” Leach said. “Most of the guys have been in enough games to know what to expect. I think Spiros and (Stingrays assistant coach) Steve (Bergin) have been getting us dialed in on execution and I think that’s big. We know we can play good hockey, now we’ve just got to go out and do it for 60 minutes on Saturday and Sunday. Take each shift, each period and not look too far ahead.”