It seemed only fitting that the fate of the South Carolina Stingrays would fall on the pads of goalie Ryan Zapolski.
Zapolski made 33 saves and stopped all five shots in the shootout as South Carolina defeated Fort Wayne, 2-1, Friday night before a crowd of 3,144 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
With the victory, the Stingrays improved to 31-24-6 (68 points) and moved into a tie for sixth place in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference. The Komets are 28-28-3 (59 points). The top eight teams from the Eastern Conference will advance to the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Zapolski has been the best goalie in the ECHL all season and with South Carolina battling for its playoff life, the Stingrays leaned heavily on the former Mercyhurst College standout Friday night.
With the Stingrays up 1-0 in the fifth round on a Tyler Johnson goal, the Komets needed Jean-Michel Rizk to score to send the shootout into a sixth round. Rizk had 18 goals coming into the game, but couldn’t get the puck past Zapolski, who stopped Rizk’s forehand-backhand move to end the game.
“Ryan was great again for us,” said Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery. “Sometimes I think we rely a little too much on Ryan to bail us out. He made some key saves, especially late in the game, and during the shootout. It was a huge two points for us.”
With Elmira, Kalamazoo and Florida all losing in regulation or in a shootout Friday night, the Stingrays inched closer to securing a spot in the playoffs with 11 regular season games remaining. South Carolina, however, has played 61 games, the most of any the team in the Eastern Conference, except Gwinnett. Most teams in the conference, including Kalamazoo, Elmira and Florida, have several games in hand on the Stingrays.
“Every point is going to be critical from here to the end of the season,” Carbery said. “We’re essentially in the playoffs right now.”
Zapolski out-dueled Fort Wayne goalie Jeff Deslauriers to notch his 21st win of the season. Deslauriers, a second-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2002, has played in 84 games in the NHL during his career and played for Anaheim as recently as last season.
“I thought both goalies played very well,” Carbery said. “Ryan was just able to make one more save.”
The Komets grabbed a 1-0 lead on Nick Schaus’ goal just 5:38 into the opening period.
The Stingrays answered when Andrew Cherniwchan redirected a Ryan McGinnis shot from the point past Deslauriers four minutes later.
For the next two periods, Zapolski and Deslauriers matched each other save for save.
“We’re still don’t have the jump we had a couple of weeks ago,” Carbery said. “We’re still not taking the play to the other team. We’re spending too much time in our defensive zone and we’ve got to get back what we had last week and for the last couple of weeks when we went on a little bit of a run.”
Fort Wayne 1 0 0 0—1
Stingrays 1 0 0 0—2
First Period: 1. F, Schaus 2 (Marino, Syroczynski), 5:38. 2. SC, Cherniwchan 9 (McGinnis), 17:36. Penalties: Hoban, F (hooking), 7:08; MacLeod, SC (hooking), 14:23.
Second Period: No Scoring. Penalties: Milam, F (holding), 4:56; Hegarty, F (tripping), 7:25; MacLeod, SC (bench - too many men), 11:15.
Third Period: No Scoring. Penalties: Brodie, SC (interference), 6:03; Gates FW (holding), 8:45; Cherniwchan Sc (high-sticking), 19:41. OT Period: No Scoring..Penalties: No Penalties
Shootout: 3. SC, Johnson (unassisted). Shots on Goal: Stingrays 10-12-5-5-32; Fort Wayne: 11-12-7-4-34. Penalties: Stingrays 4-8; Fort Wayne 4-8. Power Play: Stingrays 0 for 4; Fort Wayne 0 for 4. Goalies: Stingrays – Ryan Zapolski (21-9-1) 34 shots, 33 saves. Fort Wayne – Jeff Deslauiries (2-2-1) 34 shots, 33 saves. Att: 3,144.