NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays 2020-21 season wasn’t for fans who were faint of heart. The late start to the season, coupled with COVID restrictions and uncertainty stemming from the AHL and NHL seasons, only added to the on-ice roller coaster that was this year’s team. Initially hot out of the gate, the team found themselves in a deep funk in February. They went on a 10-game winless streak and struggled to find a consistent groove after that.
By the middle of May, the team had slipped to sixth in the Eastern Conference. But, found their stride in the last three weeks of the regular season to propel themselves into the playoffs and make their sixth Kelly Cup Finals appearance.
Regular Season Record: 34-23-10-3; 4th in Eastern Conference
Conference Semifinals: Defeated the Florida Everblades 3-2, winning the final two games on the road
Conference Finals: Defeated the Greenville Swamp Rabbits 3-1
Kelly Cup Finals: Lost to Fort Wayne Komets 3-1
Alex Dubeau: Finding Dubeau was critical for the Stingrays this past year. While Hunter Shepard had the better save percentage and goals against average, Dubeau found ways to win and posted an impressive 16-4-4-1 record. Dubeau started the season as the third goalie in Charleston but was the workhorse for most of March, April, and the first half of May until an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
The veteran-heavy forward corps: They found ways to make it happen down the stretch. Even when the Stingrays weren’t winning, they were grabbing points and forcing overtime. They played in 21 overtime contests during the season, second-most in the league. When the season was on the line, the team found ways to win, and they hit their stride at just the right time for their deep playoff run.
Parts of Special Teams: The home power play, which has struggled at times the past few years, was third-best in the league, converting 19.1% of the time. The road penalty kill was even more effective, stopping 86.2% of opponent man advantages.
Team defense: The dominant shut-down defenses that were hallmarks under Spencer Carbery, Ryan Warsofsky, and Steve Bergin are fond memories. With only 14 teams in the league, the Stingrays were 11th in shots allowed and ninth in goals allowed. Not a single player finished the season with a plus-minus rating in the positive double digits.
Cohesion: For such a talented group, they underwhelmed most of the season. Several former point-per-game players struggled to find groves for a majority of the regular season. It may have been a situation where there was too much top-end talent. Several players did not see the ice time they normally see during the season. Line combinations seemed to rotate at inopportune times due to call-ups, COVID protocols and injuries. Regardless, the veteran players should have found ways to produce in the face of adversity, but they didn’t.
Parts of Special Teams: The fantastic home power-play record was balanced by an 11th-rated road power play that only converted 14.8% of chances. And the stellar road penalty kill stayed on the road as the home penalty kill unit only stopped 81.7% of chances tied for 11th-worst in the league.
Room for Improvement
The Stingrays were a solid team last year. The team that will take the ice for the upcoming season will be vastly different due to the departure of many veteran players and players that had their rights held by teams that did not play last year. The new edition of the Stingrays can improve across several areas.
Team toughness: While the vast majority of the players were willing to stand up for their team last year, there was always a sense of hesitancy about it. The Stingrays were often outplayed physically and it was a common occurrence where opposing teams never answered for big hits and hard contact on the goalies. The Stingrays need two or three players willing to immediately address grievances on the ice and put other teams on notice when the physicality starts ramping up.
Consistent gameplay: After a hot start to the season, the Stingrays played mediocre hockey until the middle of May. There were flashes of brilliance along the way, but the team failed to find a consistent rhythm until it was almost too late. The run the team went on to close out the regular season and through the playoffs demonstrated their true potential and ability. The coaching staff and players for the upcoming season need to find a way to harness that sense of urgency from the start of the season.
Team Defense: The Stingrays used to be perennial contenders for having the lowest goals against average and shots allowed per game. That has slipped dramatically. Without the stellar play of Shepard and Dubeau, this past season would have much different. The Stingrays have to find a way of balancing offensive firepower with a 200-foot commitment to defense in their forward corps.
Additionally, the defensive corps has to own their half of the ice and return to their elite status in the ECHL. The defense seemed to have the right mix of point producers and shut down players but something was missing all season. Owning the back end will be critical for the Stingrays’ upcoming season that is bound to have diminished offensive firepower upfront.
2021-22 Prediction Sure to Go Wrong
A Shepard/Dubeau tandem will keep the Stingrays steady in the first months of the season. They will have to as the huge turnover in the forward corps causes a lag in consistency and production. Once the team gets their feet under them, they will see some success until Shepard and Dubeau get well deserved looks in the AHL. This will happen in February, a month the team has gone nearly winless in two of the last three seasons. All the pieces will filter back in place towards the end of the season letting the Stingrays hold on to second in the South Division, and they will get at least to the Conference finals.
The Stingrays had a successful season and will be hanging an Eastern Conference Championship Banner on opening night. The path to get there was definitely not easy and not how the team drew up the plan at the beginning of the season. The veteran leadership stiffened their spines and led the team on a fantastic run; a feat they, and their fans, should be proud of.
Finding a way to smooth the road in the regular season will be key for the 2021-22 team.
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