NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – What if? The 2019-20 season will always be one of the unanswered questions for the South Carolina Stingrays. Could the successful changes made in the offseason lead to a deep postseason run?
The Stingrays made several moves in the offseason and it had paid off in the regular season. Steve Bergin, the eventual 2020 John Brophy Award winner for coach of the year, took the helm as Head Coach after serving three years as an assistant coach. He built a veteran-heavy team that was focused on winning a Kelly Cup. Bergin’s guidance and the players’ experience and professionalism drove the team all year. The Stingrays led the league from the start of the season and never looked back.
Final Record: 44-14-3-1; 1st In South Division, 1st In Eastern Conference, 1st in League
Leading Scorer: Andrew Cherniwchan (28G, 23A in 60 games) and Max Novak (15G, 36A in 59 games) each tied with 59 points
Best Netminder: Parker Milner 2.20 GAA, 7 SO in 30 appearances; Logan Thompson .929 save percentage in 32 appearances
High Point: The start of the season was magical for the Stingrays. The experience and depth on the team got them off to fast start going 11-1 to open the season. The offense was rolling, generating 4.33 goals per game. The defense and goaltending were equally impressive only giving up 2.17 goals per game in the same timeframe. The opening of the season put the league on notice that the Stingrays were a force to be reckoned with.
Low Point: Back-to-back home games on January 31st and February 1st saw the Stingrays struggle in two games against Norfolk and Florida. The Stingrays fell apart against the Admirals giving up five goals in the last 14 minutes of the game to blow a 6-3 lead and lose 6-8. The next day should have been a statement game against the Everblades. In front of a big crowd of 5900, the Stingrays came out flat, getting shut
out for the first two periods in an eventual 5-2 loss.
The losses had some fans questioning if the team was a little too confident and if they could get up for the big games that were on the schedule towards the end of the regular season. The Stingrays rebounded by going 9-1 in their next 10 games.
Highlight of Season: It’s hard to pick out a highlight from this year. Not because there weren’t any but because most of the season was one long highlight. But for most fans, the back to back overtime wins on February 14th and 15th were the highlights of the season.
On February 14th, the Stingrays gave up a late goal to the Adirondack Thunder sending the game to overtime. Captain Andrew Cherniwchan won the game in overtime with a great shot from the top of the slot.
The next night saw the Stingrays give up another late goal but Tom Parisi scored with less than a minute left to send the game to overtime against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Ed Wittchow provided the heroics in overtime as he was able to convert on a breakaway. It was two fantastic nights of hockey at the North Charleston Coliseum.
Surprises/Disappointments: It’s hard to have any disappointments in a team that performed so well over the regular season. The only mild disappointment this year was the home record of the team. While 19-9 is by no means a poor home record, the nine home losses were the most of any division leader in the ECHL.
If there were any surprises, it was how well the team got along on and reportedly off the ice. The on-ice chemistry was evident. The team was also very close off the ice. When there are so many good veteran players on a team sometimes egos and personalities get in the way. This team seemed to be singularly focused on winning a championship and put the team first. This attitude propelled the team to the successes they earned in the regular season.
If the season continued…how would it have played out?
The Stingrays were in prime position for a long playoff run. Call ups and injuries had put a big dent in the lineup. In the absence of Tommy Hughes, Tom Parisi, Mark Cooper, Dan DeSalvo, Matt Weis, Branden Troock and Max Novak, other players had a chance to step into the spotlight and sharpen their skills. Everyone, with the exception of Weis, was projected to be back for the playoffs.
If the season had come to its natural conclusion, the Stingrays would have potentially had five 50+ point scorers and five additional 20+ point scorers primed for the playoffs. The defense would have had a strong mixture of scorers and shut down style blue liners. The goaltending tandem was the best in the ECHL. Thompson was tops in the league with a .929 save percentage, while Milner was second in the league with a 2.20 goals against average, but lead the league with seven shutouts. Additionally, Milner had the poise and experience to lead the tandem either in net or through mentoring Thompson during his first professional playoff run.
The offense would have been back to full strength for the first time in two months. Cole Ully, Tim Harrison, Cam Askew, and Cherniwchan had played within their roles consistently well all season. Askew took full advantage of getting top-six minutes by putting in 12 points (4G, 8A) over the team’s last 10 games. Rookies Dylan Steman, Scott Davidson, and Alec Marsh had all stepped up into expanded roles when the
call ups and injuries happened. The Stingrays had also added NHL contracted Nathan Noel right before play was stopped.
The defense would have been missing Wittchow, who had earned full-time minutes in Hershey but most likely gained back Hughes who was projected to be back after an injury. The defense was a solid group all year. Tariq Hammond, Jaynen Rissling, Kristofers Binduilis, Jordan Klimek and Parisi were the core of the solid group that stayed in North Charleston for the majority of the season. Neal Goff and Jesse Lees were great pickups for a D-corps that had been solid all year long.
The Stingrays would not have had an easy road to the Kelly Cup. In all likelihood, they would have had to face the Florida Everblades to make it out of the South Division. Florida had just mounted an impressive run and tied the Stingrays in the standings.
Assuming they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Stingrays would have had to likely face the defending champion Newfoundland Growlers. This matchup would have pitted the number one scoring offense of the Growlers against the number one defense of
the Stingrays. In playoff hockey, it always seems that a good defense stifles a good offense, and that would have been the case here, too.
The Stingrays would have then most likely faced either the Cincinnati Cyclones or Allen
Americans in the Finals. Both were very strong teams with the Cyclones having a comparable goalie tandem to the Stingrays.
At the end of the day, I believe the Stingrays would have vanquished the demons of 2015 and won their fourth Kelly Cup, four games to three, over the Allen Americans.
Focus for the Offseason
Given the abrupt end to the season, one would have to think that there is a deep feeling of unfinished business. In addition to restocking the high-end skill group, re-signing players like Harrison and Askew bring leadership, size, and grit to the lineup.
As happens every year, some players are rumored to be retiring and a few will look for AHL or overseas contracts to boost their careers based on their performances this season.
Finding replacement players that are equally hungry for a championship will be Bergin’s top
priority. South Carolina has a strong history of goaltending and ensuring the continuance of that tradition will be key to the future success of the organization. Although there was general team toughness, the Stingrays could have used a player or two that was more willing to drop the gloves. At times, it seemed that the Stingrays were pushed around without anyone holding the other team accountable. Landing an enforcer isn’t a necessity but it would take some pressure off of others in the lineup to respond in tighter games.
What if? That will be the question that can never be answered about the 2019-20 season.
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