Going into the final month of the ECHL’s regular-season, the South Carolina Stingrays were on the verge of not making the Kelly Cup playoffs for the first time in more than 12 years.
For the past two decades the Stingrays have been the league’s gold standard when it came to winning and reaching the playoffs. No team in the ECHL has made more playoffs appearances than the Stingrays (25). No team has hoisted the Kelly Cup more times (3), played in the Kelly Cup finals as many times (5), and won more playoff games (123) than South Carolina.
There’s little doubt that the club’s winning tradition has spoiled Stingrays' fans and raised expectations.
So when the Stingrays entered March and faced the real possibility of not making the postseason, the fans started to get restless. Most of the Stingrays' faithful pointed the finger at first-year head coach Spiros Anastas and indirectly at new owner Todd Halloran.
Anastas was the first coach since Rick Vaive that had no connection to the Stingrays' organization as a player or as an assistant coach before he was hired last August. In a game against Florida in late February, with South Carolina in the midst of a seven-game losing streak, fans booed Anastas during pregame introductions.
But with help from the Stingrays’ American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey, South Carolina went 10-5-1 over the final five weeks of the season – beating Atlanta three times in the final weekend – to qualify for the Kelly Cup playoffs for the 25th time in the franchise’s 26 years of existence.
Despite having one of the least talented teams in recent memory, the Stingrays managed to win 35 games and were able to keep their 12-year playoff streak alive. Only the Stingrays first team in 1993-94 (33) and the 2005-06 teams (32) had fewer wins during the regular season.
For the second straight season, the Orlando Solar Bears knocked the Stingrays out of the playoffs in the opening round.
So why was this year such a struggle for Anastas and the Stingrays?
Blue line blues
A year ago, the Stingrays' defense set a league record, allowing just 153 goals during 72 regular-season games.
With a team featuring Joey Leach, Frankie Simonelli, Paul Geiger, Danny Federico and Marcus Perrier, the Stingrays had one of top blue lines in ECHL history. Only Joey Leach returned this season. Simonelli and Federico retired. Perrier, who started the season with the Stingrays, and Geiger ended up in Europe.
At one point in the season, Leach, the team captain, had more games of pro experience, than the other five defensemen in the lineup combined. Leach missed large chunks of the season when he was called up to the AHL with Hershey.
Anastas eventually made trades to bring in Steven Johnson, Miles Liberatti and Chase Harrison, but by then the damage had been done. All six of the defensemen that started Game 5 against Orlando this past Saturday night were rookies or just out of college.
“From the all-star break (Jan. 21) to the trade deadline (March 7) there wasn’t a single day that we didn’t attempt to make a trade,” Anastas said. "If there was a trade to be made that would have helped us be a better team, we would have made it.”
During the playoffs, Anastas signed Ryker Killins, Cameron Heath and Matt Nuttle right out of college. All three showed promise.
Over the years, the Hershey Bears have provided the Stingrays with plenty of talent and depth.
Several players, including goalies Braden Holtby and Phillipp Grubauer, have gone on to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup.
This year, the Stingrays had seven affiliated players on their roster during the regular-season, but just four – goalie Parker Milner and forwards Grant Besse, Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Mason Mitchell – were on the ice in the final three games of the playoffs against the Orlando Solar Bears. Leach, who signed with Hershey during the regular season, was called up to the AHL before Game 3.
A year ago, South Carolina had 11 affiliated players during the 2017-18 season, including seven in the playoffs and 10 during the 2016-17 campaign, including seven when South Carolina made a run to the Kelly Cup finals.
The Solar Bears, meanwhile, had 14 affiliated players in Game 5 against the Stingrays.
Dog Days of February
A quick look at the results during the season reveals that, with the exception of the month of February, the Stingrays were a competitive club in the ECHL’s South Division.
From the beginning of the season to the end of January, the Stingrays were either in second or third place in the South Division.
The month of February was dismal. The Stingrays went 1-9-3 and Anastas is still trying to figure out why.
“The month of February was an anomaly,” he said. “I’m still not sure exactly what happened. It was a perfect storm of events. We had a young team and the college guys, who were used to playing 35 to 40 games in college, hit the wall.”
This is the second straight year and the 15th time in 25 playoff appearances that South Carolina was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.
But just making the playoffs isn’t good enough for this franchise.
“Unless you’re celebrating with the Kelly Cup at the end of the years, it’s a disappointment,” said veteran forward Andrew Cherniwchan.
A sentiment shared by Anastas.
“There’s a long tradition of excellence, so overall the season wasn’t what we expected,” Anastas said. “We’re not going to be thrilled to just make it. That’s not the standard around here. Anything else would be unacceptable. We don’t settle for being just OK. We want to be great."
A full offseason for Anastas should help. He’ll be able to recruit and sign players that fit his systems.
“We are going to do a serious audit of our systems and the makeup of our team,” Anastas said. “We’re going to go over our process, every detail. The old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, is wrong when it comes to sports.
"If you don’t learn how to break it, someone else is going to learn how to break you and by that time it’ll be too late.”