It was bound to happen sooner or later.
The South Carolina Stingrays couldn’t go through the entire Kelly Cup playoffs without losing at least one game.
The Stingrays, who had not been beaten in regulation since the end of February, lost for the first time in more than a month.
Justin Kovacs and Zack Phillips each had two goals and an assist to lead Kalamazoo past South Carolina, 5-3, in Game 3 of the Kelly Cup Eastern Conference quarterfinals Monday night at the Wings Event Center in Kalamazoo, Mich.
Despite the loss, the Stingrays lead the best-of-7 series, 2-1, with Game 4 set for Thursday night at the North Charleston Coliseum at 7:05 p.m.
The series will shift back to the Lowcountry for the final four games of the series, if necessary. Despite being the No. 2 seed in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference, the Stingrays were forced to play the first three games of the series in Kalamazoo because of scheduling conflicts at the North Charleston Coliseum.
“It’s not like we were going to go 16-0 in the playoffs,” said South Carolina coach Spencer Carbery. “Kalamazoo is a good team and we knew they were going to push back at us. They won nine of their last 10 games of the regular season, so we knew they were not just going to lie down and let us go up 3-0 in the series. This is playoff hockey and Kalamazoo is fighting for their season right now.”
Trailing 2-0 in the series, the Wings came out and took control of the game in the opening minutes of the first period. Although the Stingrays would get a goal from defenseman Nick Jones and lead 1-0 after the opening period, Carbery could sense a change in the momentum.
“They came out and played really well in the first period and kind of caught us off guard,” Carbery said. “Even though we were up 1-0 after the first period, I didn’t have a good feeling going into the first intermission.”
Carbery’s premonition proved accurate as the Wings would score three times in the second period, including twice on the power play, to take a lead a 3-2 lead after the second period of action.
Phillips would give Kalamazoo its first lead of the game, beating Stingrays goalie Mark Dekanich off the faceoff with a wrist shot at 6:03 to make it 2-1.
South Carolina’s Brett Cameron would score his third goal of the playoffs, lifting the stick of Cory Pritz and taking the puck away from the Kalamazoo defender directly in front of the net. Cameron collected the puck and walked around Martin to tie the game, 2-2, at 11:06.
The Wings would respond, adding an Alexandre Mallet goal on the power play at 14:40.
The Stingrays’ penalty kill, which led the ECHL during the regular season, has given up a power-play goal in each of the first three games of the series.
“Our penalty kill isn’t very good right now, and we’ve got to clean some things up,” Carbery said.
South Carolina would press in the third period, outshooting Kalamazoo, 18-4, but Kovacs scored to add the Kalamazoo lead at 11:31 to make it 4-2, sliding a shot under Dekanich’s pad from the crease.
Joe Devin, who had a knack of scoring late goals a year ago in the playoffs, scored to cut the gap to 4-3 with 3:01 to play in regulation.
Any hopes of a Stingrays comeback were ended when Phillips scored an empty-net goal with 26 seconds to play.
Kalamazoo goalie Joel Martin fnished with 37 saves to pick up his first victory of the series.
“Joel is one of the best goalies in the ECHL, and he had a great game for them,” Carbery said. “But I didn’t think we made it as tough on him as we could have in the third period. When you’re playing against a goalie like him, you can’t put soft shots on net. You’ve got to be 100 percent committed or he’s going to make the save.”