NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Some might say it’s hard to believe that the South Carolina Stingrays have won their sixth Eastern Conference championship. Sometimes it’s easy not to believe. With less than four weeks left in the season, the Stingrays were in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Many fans had shifted to a ‘next year’ mentality. Time was too short, the path to a playoff berth too narrow. But the most important group of people to still believe, those wearing the South Carolina Stingrays jerseys and playing the games.
They churned out a six-game win streak to clinch the last playoff spot on the next to last day of the season. Then they knocked off the Florida Everblades, a team that owned them 10-1-1-1 in the regular season, in the first round. Then they drew an Eastern Conference finals opponent in the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, who went 9-3-1-2 against them in the regular season. Now, the Stingrays find themselves with their tickets punched for a trip to the Kelly Cup Finals for a chance to win their fourth Kelly Cup after a game four win.
The Swamp Rabbits and Stingrays again skated to a 0-0 stalemate in the first period. Greenville and the Stingrays were even on shots, if not on the ice. The Swamp Rabbits came out strong to start the first period. They had several opportunities in the opening minutes. It took the Stingrays about ten minutes to find their feet in the game. Once they did, they had a few high-quality scoring chances, and the game settled for the last five mutes of the frame. In the final minute, South Carolina had a high-quality chance, and Greenville returned the pressure the last seconds of the period to no avail.
The second period saw South Carolina come out with strong pressure dictated the game’s flow for the first two minutes. Then, Max Zimmer got tied up on a breakaway and was awarded a penalty shot. Hunter Shepard made a great save, and the Stingrays seemed to feed off of his energy for the next several minutes. Captain Andrew Cherniwchan left the game at the 8:15 mark after taking a late high hit from Matt Bradley, who was given a five-minute major for charging. The Stingrays converted one time on the extended power play when Matt Weis scored at the 9:43 mark. Assists were credited to Max Gottlieb and Caleb Herbert.
Tempers were starting to flare throughout the second half of the frame. Dylan Steman and Bradley got into an exchange after a holding penalty had been called on Greenville. They both received roughing minors, but the exchange was noteworthy as Cherniwchan returned to the ice during the stoppage in play, much to the delight of the small but densely packed and very boisterous crowd at the Carolina Ice Palace. Greenville ended up outshooting the Stingrays 13-9 in the period, but the Stingrays took a 1-0 lead into the second intermission.
The third period delivered highs and lows for both teams. South Carolina was on their heels to start the period as Greenville looked to find an early equalizer. The Stingrays final broke through Greenville’s pressure at 4:02 as Max Novak found the back of the net from just in front of the goal line on John Lethemon’s right side. A great pass from Matt Weis set up the play. Cole Ully received the second assist on the play.
Greenville wasn’t done and on an excellent pushback shift, scored 35 seconds later at the 4:37 mark. Ben Finkelstein scored off of a feed from Joey Haddad to bring the Swamp Rabbits back to within quick striking distance at 2-1.
The Stingrays defense bent several times, but Shepard was equal to the task over the next several minutes. The physicality of the game kept ramping up as well. The Stingrays kept shutting down chances, and Greenville kept attacking. Lethemon was pulled for an attacker with 91 seconds remaining. The Stingrays had several empty net opportunities that Greenville kept out with desperation scrambles in front of their net. Greenville had one final push after a faceoff with seven seconds remaining, but the Stingrays held firm and got the win.
In the end, they believed.
The Stingrays will have to wait to see who they will face in the Kelly Cup Finals. Fort Wayne currently leads Allen 2-1 in the best of five Western Conference Finals. Being the lower seed has allowed the team to release the dates for the first two games of the finals, with ticketing information to be released soon.
Game 1 – Friday, June 25 – 7:05 pm ET – Carolina Ice Palace
Game 2 – Sunday, June 27 – 6:05 pm ET – Carolina Ice Palace
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