For the past two seasons, the South Carolina Stingrays have been one of the top defensive teams in the ECHL.
A year ago, the Stingrays led the 23-team league, allowing just 171 goals. In the 2011-12 season, the Stingrays ranked second defensively, giving up just 180 goals in 72 games.
Under head coach Spencer Carbery, the Stingrays have earned a league-wide reputation for their gritty, defensive style on the ice.
But a byproduct of their emphasis on defense the last two years has been their lack of goal scoring. Last season, the Stingrays were ranked 14th overall (211 goals) in goals for and next to last (191 goals) during the 2011-12 season.
It’s a trend that Carbery is determined to reverse this season.
Over the summer, the third-year head coach picked the brains of coaches in the NHL and the American Hockey League trying to figure out ways to be more productive in their offensive zone. When putting the team together he targeted players that were proven scorers at the ECHL and AHL levels.
While the sample size so far – just three games into the current 2013-14 season – isn’t large enough to determine a final verdicts, Carbery is pleased with what he has seen on the ice to this point. The Stingrays took three of four points from Reading, the defending Kelly Cup champions, in two games on the road last weekend.
“There’s no doubt that we’re a much deeper team at the forward position from what we’ve been in the last two years,” Carbery said. “I’m confident that we’re going to get more scoring from all three lines this season. We’ve recruited guys and signed guys that have proven they can play at a high level and score in this league.”
Against the Royals, the Stingrays had at least one 20-goal scorer on each of their three lines. Carbery rolled all three lines against Reading, using the Stingrays’ depth to wear down the Royals. Five different players scored goals in the two-game series. Forwards like Andrew Cherniwchan and Patrick Gaul, who were fixtures in the Stingrays’ lineup last season, have been battling for ice time.
“There’s no doubt we’re more skilled up front than we were last year,” said Stingrays forward Chris Langkow. “There’s not a top line. Everyone can contribute. Guys are fighting for ice time and that’s a good thing. You know if you’re not getting the job done that someone is waiting to take your spot.”
Carbery spent hours on the phone with coaches from the NHL and AHL over the summer, going over new tactics to create more scoring. It became evident early on that the Stingrays system didn’t need a major overhaul, just some minor tweaking to be more productive. Two main themes came out of those conversations, a focus on the power play and using defensemen to create scoring chances.
“You have to work on your power play a lot and you have to be dialed in all the time on it,” Carbery said. “We’ve changed our structure on the power play and it has been a point of emphasis during practices. I like the way our power play has looked so far. In order for skill players to feel good about themselves they’ve got to produce on the power play.”
Having defensemen push the puck up the ice or join in offensive rushes has only added to the Stingrays offense. Another key for defenseman is making sure the shots they take from the point get through to the net.
“We’re a lot more mobile on the blue line this year,” said Stingrays captain Kevin Quick. “We’ve got guys that can jump up in the play and create some chances. We know we’ve got to pick our spots. We don’t want to get caught up ice all the time, but there’s more freedom to go up and makes things happen.”
Carbery is confident the Stingrays’ new emphasis on offense won’t detract from their defense-first philosophy.
“I’ll never change my philosophy on the way the game should be played and how hard you should defend,” Carbery said. “That’s always going to be the same. You have to play a 200-foot game. You can’t just play inside your own offensive zone.”