An hour or so after South Carolina lost to Cincinnati in Game 5 of its ECHL American Conference quarterfinal series Sunday night, Stingrays head coach Cail MacLean was doing what any coach does after the conclusion of a long season -- playing the "what if" game.
--What if the Stingrays had gotten all their players back from the American Hockey League?
--What if the Stingrays had managed to turn one of their 12 overtime or shootout losses into one more win and been the top seed in the American Conference?
--What if injuries to defensemen Zach Jones, Joe Finley and Josh Godfrey had not forced MacLean to use the Southern Professional Hockey League as the Stingrays own quasi-developmental league?
--What if Rob Ricci and Trent Campbell had not been hurt in Game 5?
--What if one or two of those shots in overtime of Game 5 had not hit the crossbar and gone into the net?
A coach could go nuts just thinking about the different scenarios.
"We had a great season, it just ended a little too soon for everyone," MacLean said after Sunday's 3-2 overtime playoff loss to the Cyclones in Game 5. "This was a great bunch of guys to coach. I would have loved to see what we could have done the rest of the playoffs. I really liked the way were playing.
"I learned last year that you need talent to win a Kelly Cup, but you also need a little luck as well. I'm convinced we had the talent to make a run at another Kelly Cup; we just didn't get as much luck as we had last year."
Stingrays captain Matt Scherer couldn't have agreed more.
"We've got nothing to hang around heads about," Scherer said. "We had a great regular season and we battled until the very last second of the series with Cincinnati. They just got one more bounce than we did."
Coming off the franchise's third Kelly Cup title, MacLean had plenty to live up to during his rookie season as a head coach.
"They expect to win championships around here, and I expect the same," MacLean said. "I'm not disappointed with the regular season or the playoffs. I thought we left everything we had out on the ice. I'm just disappointed that the season couldn't have gone on a little longer."
MacLean took over last summer after former head coach Jared Bednar left to become an assistant coach with the AHL's Abbotsford Heat. Bednar left some big skates to fill -- in two seasons, he had set a franchise record for most wins in a regular season with 47 and led the team two American Conference finals and a Kelly Cup title.
"He's a tough act to follow," MacLean said.
Still, MacLean, who served as team captain under Bednar during the 2008-09 season, left his own mark on the Stingrays this season.
The Stingrays finished with a 41-19-12 regular season mark, and their 94 points were tied with Charlotte and Kalamazoo for most points in the American Conference.
In December, the Stingrays reeled off a franchise-record 13 straight wins.
The Stingrays were one of only three teams -- the others were Cincinnati and Idaho -- to win at least 20 games at home and on the road.
For large chunks of January and February, the Stingrays did not have a single defensemen or goalie in the lineup that they started the season with and still managed to win.
"The guys really battled through a lot of adversity this year and I'm really proud of them for doing that," MacLean said. "I think that made us a stronger team and brought our locker room closer together."
MacLean said he learned a lot about his trade in his first year as a head coach.
"It's been an eye-opening experience for me," MacLean said. "Just when you think you know it all, you realize you don't. The thing I learned the most about was managing a game. Running a bench and knowing when to put guys on the ice in certain situations."
The return of Scherer, Nate Kiser, Trent Campbell, Keith Johnson, Johann Kroll -- cornerstones of the Stingrays' Kelly Cup title season in 2009 -- for next season remains in doubt.
Was Sunday night's loss to Cincinnati the last game that defenseman Nate Kiser, a six-year veteran of the franchise, played in a Stingrays uniform?
"I'm not going to make any decisions about my future for a few weeks," Kiser said after the game. "I don't think it's smart to make an emotional decision so close to the end of a season. I know I love playing and I love the organization."
MacLean said he's already looking forward to the start of next season.
"Obviously, I'm a little worn out from this season, but I've already started to think about recruiting players for next year," MacLean said.