The third time, indeed, was the charm for the South Carolina Stingrays.
Wayne Simpson and Derek DeBlois each scored two goals and Jeff Jakaitis stopped 30 shots to lead South Carolina past Florida, 5-2, Monday night in Game 6 of the ECHL Kelly Cup East Division finals at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla.
With the victory, the Stingrays captured the best-of-seven series, 4-2, and will advance to play in the Eastern Conference finals against either Fort Wayne or Toledo. That series is tied at 3 with Game 7 coming Wednesday night. No matter who the Stingrays face in the Eastern Conference finals, that series will begin Friday night on the road. The Stingrays will have home games May 20 and 22 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
This was the Stingrays’ third attempt to eliminate the Everblades in less than a week. The Stingrays grabbed a 3-0 lead in the series, but the Everblades won Game 4, 2-1, in triple overtime and Game 5, 5-4, in double overtime at the North Charleston Coliseum to send the series back to Florida for Game 6.
The Stingrays won all three games at Germain Arena during the series.
“This was one of the best games we’ve played all year,” said Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery. “It was a phenomenal performance from all three lines and our defensive group. It was a night-and-day performance from Game 5 and it came at the most crucial time of the season in the most crucial game of the season. It was a complete 60-minute effort. I’m so proud to be associated with this group of players.
“Not because we won the series, but because of the way they have responded to adversity all season. The momentum of the series had clearly shifted to Florida in Games 4 and 5, but this group responded in Game 6 with their best performance of the season.”
South Carolina’s top line of Andrew Rowe, Simpson and DeBlois all scored and had multi-point nights for the Stingrays. Simpson finished with two goals and two assists, while DeBlois had two goals and an assist. Rowe, the team captain, had a goal and an assist.
“You need your best players to be your best players in the playoffs, and that line really stepped up for us,” Carbery said. “When you’re playing in a game like this, you need guys like Andrew Rowe and Wayne Simpson to step up and score, and they did. I thought all three lines were able to get some good scoring chances.”
The Everblades outshot the Stingrays, 32-29, but got few quality scoring chances throughout the game.
“I thought we defended really well,” Carbery said. “We were very hard on the puck. We didn’t have many breakdowns. It was exactly the kind of performance we needed from our blue line. When they did get a chance, Jeff was there to make the save.”
Simpson opened the scoring on the power play midway through the opening period, ripping a shot over the blocker of Everblades rookie goalie Daniel Altshuller off the left-wing faceoff circle. Altshuller started in place of Allen York, who was knocked out of Game 5 at the end of the second period.
“That was a huge goal from Wayne and really got us off on the right foot,” Carbery said.
Rowe made it a 2-0 Stingrays lead in the second period blasting a one-time feed from Simpson past the left pad of Altshuller at 9:35.
The Everblades pulled within one 2:13 into the final period as forward Ray Kaunisto slipped a shot past Jaikaitis, but the Stingrays answered almost immediately as DeBlois tapped a bouncing puck past Altshuller just 30 seconds later to give the Stingrays a 3-1 lead.
DeBlois struck again to make it 4-1 at 9:40 with a beautiful pass from Rowe.
With time running out, the Everblades pulled Altshuller for an extra attacker in search of a spark, but the Stingrays hit the back on of the empty net thanks to Simpson’s second of the game and sixth goal of the playoffs at 13:58.
The Everblades were able to grab a late power-play goal off the stick of Mike Aviani with under half a minute to play to complete the game scoring.