As they went through the traditional post-series handshake line, most of the South Carolina Stingrays players spent an extra moment or two talking with Kalamazoo goalie Joel Martin.
It was a sign of respect.
Despite Martin’s best efforts to keep the Wings in the game and in the series, the Stingrays were just too strong.
Stephan Vigier had a goal and an assist and rookie Colton Suacerman added two assists to lead South Carolina past Kalamazoo, 5-1, in Game 5 of its ECHL Kelly Cup series Saturday night before a crowd of 3,385 at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Stingrays captured the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, 4-1, and will face the Adirondack Thunder in the next round.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with the Thunder will be Friday night at the North Charleston Coliseum at 7:05 p.m.
It was a dominant performance from the Stingrays, who controlled the run of play throughout the series especially in even-strength situations. The Stingrays outshot the Wings in each game, and if not for the play of Martin, would have swept the Thunder.
The one Stingrays player who didn’t seem to struggle against Martin was Joe Devin, who finished with five goals in the series, including the game-winner with less than a minute to play in regulation in Game 4.
“Their goalie played unbelievable the whole series,” Devin said. “I didn’t feel comfortable until we got that goal late in the third period from Austin (Fyten). It was nice to finish this series off in five games, but give their goalie a lot of credit, he kept them in every game.”
The turning point for South Carolina came early in the game as the Stingrays were forced to kill of four-straight Kalamazoo power plays.
“We took some penalties early in the first period and that was big to kill off those penalties,” Devin said. “We couldn’t get anything rolling 5-on-5 and I think those penalty kills kind of gave us a little momentum. The penalty kill has done a really good job all year and we kind of pride ourselves on that. We were able to weather that storm and get back to playing five-on-five in the second period.”
After a scoreless first period, the Stingrays erupted for three goals in span of two minutes and 15 seconds.
Defenseman Nick Jones got the scoring going when he took a shot that bounced off of Martin and back onto the chest of Jones and into the net.
Forty-one seconds later, Devin gave the Stingrays a 2-0 lead with power-play goal and Vigier finished off the scoring stretch, beating Martin with a wrist shot along the ice for a 3-0 Stingrays lead.
“I’d be lying if I said we were not a little frustrated in Game 4 and then in the first period tonight,” Vigier said. “We’ve got three really good lines and we’ve got a lot of depth. I felt like I had a ton of Grade-A chances all series, our whole line did, so to get a couple past him was a great feeling.”
Brett Ponich scored for Kalamazoo to cut the gap to 3-1 with less than four minutes to play in the second period.
After a couple of scoring chances midway through the third period for the Wings, Fyten put the game away with a nasty wrist shot with 4:53 to play in regulation.
“A huge goal from Austin and we needed it,” Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery said. “They were making a little push and starting to gain some confidence and Austin came up huge for us.”
Rookie Vitek Vanecek picked up his second-straight win, stopping 23 of 24 shots.
“Vitek was solid and came up with a couple of big saves for us on the penalty kill,” Carbery said.
The Stingrays and Carbery will face his former boss in Adirondack coach Cail MacLean, who was once the team captain and head coach for the Stingrays. The Stingrays were 1-1-1 against the Thunder during the regular season.
“That should be a fun series,” said Carbery, who played for and was an assistant coach under MacLean. “I’m looking forward to seeing Cail again.”