ORLANDO, FL – The series between the Orlando Solar Bears and South Carolina Stingrays promises to be one of the most exciting and closely contested matchups of the opening round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs. The Stingrays were disappointed by their performance in the Kelly Cup Finals last year and are eager to return to the championship round…and win it this time. The Solar Bears still remember last year’s opening round of the playoffs, when they had a 3-1 lead over the Florida Everblades and then saw it all slip away.
Final Regular Season Records:
South Carolina Stingrays: 48-16-7-1 (104 pts, 2nd in South Division and Eastern Conference)
Orlando Solar Bears: 33-30-6-3 (75 pts, 3rd in South Division, 8th in Eastern Conference)
Game 1 – Thursday, April 12 – Orlando at SOUTH CAROLINA 7:05 p.m.ET
Game 2 – Saturday, April 14 -Orlando at SOUTH CAROLINA 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 – Thursday, April 19- South Carolina at ORLANDO 7 p.m. ET
Game 4 – Saturday, April 21 – South Carolina at ORLANDO 7 p.m. ET
*Game 5 – Sunday, April 22 -South Carolina at ORLANDO 7 p.m. ET
*Game 6 – Tuesday, April 24 -Orlando at SOUTH CAROLINA 7:05 p.m. ET
*Game 7 – Wednesday, April 25 -Orlando at SOUTH CAROLINA 7:05 p.m. ET
*=> If Necessary
Season Series Recap:
Throughout the second half of the regular season, South Carolina has shown its dominance over Orlando, winning the last seven games of the series. Many of those later games, however, have been close, with two going to the shootout, and others being decided by a single goal. Head-to-head, Orlando is 4-5-0-2 against the Stingrays.
For the season, the Stingrays have 214 GF (Goals For) and 153 GA (Goals Against). Their goals against number lead the league, which is indicative of a dominating defense and outstanding goaltending.
The Solar Bears have 212 GF and 228 GA. This suggests that the Solar Bears can match the Stingrays offensively, but they need to attend to the defensive end if they are going to contend.
Stingrays goalie Parker Milner leads the league with a 1.86 GAA and Jeff Jakaitis is third in the league with a 2.13 GAA. Hands down, the Stingrays have the best one-two goaltending tandem in the ECHL. Regarding save percentage, Milner is third in the league at .929, and Jakaitis is sixth in the league at .922.
Cal Heeter finished the regular season with a 2.74 GAA (16th in the league) and a .915 save percentage (13th in the league). Mackenzie Skapski had a 3.03 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Heeter’s play has been consistently stronger as the season has progressed.
How the Stingrays Win:
For this part of the preview, I tapped in my Sin Bin teammate, Travis Rogers, who will help me cover this series. He breaks down how the Stingrays win it with three keys:
1. Defense. The Stingrays have to stay loyal to the defensive systems that brought them this far. Player discipline has to keep playoff emotions at bay. Orlando is a bigger team with a more aggressive style of play. The Stingrays cannot afford to rise to the bait of the more aggressive Orlando players.
2. Goaltending. With two of the top three goalies in the league, keeping them focused and in their comfort zones is key. Both Parker Milner and Jeff Jakaitis like to play lots of minutes. Ryan Warsofsky will have to find a rhythm that keeps both netminders fresh and focused.
3. Scoring. The Stingrays are not a high scoring team. Seasoned playoff scorers such as Joe Devin and Kelly Zajac will have to lead the way in getting the Stingrays offense going. A late-season injection of college players has added a new group of scorers. Finding the right line combinations and chemistry will determine how quickly this series is over.
Another key for the Stingrays will be to maintain the structured, disciplined play that got them where they are. This is a team that does not rely on any dazzling superstars, but which works together as a squad. Like a machine, they grind down their opponents, and they don’t make mistakes. They can apply a notable forecheck while keeping its defensive zone covered.
The special teams could play into the Stingrays favor. The Stingrays and Solar Bears ranked 12th and 13th on the power play respectively with the Stingrays converting at a 17.3% rate and the Solar Bears at 17.1%. There is a sizeable gap on the PK, however, which should cause the Solar Bears some concern. The Stingrays are fourth in the league on the PK with an 84.9% and the Solar Bears are twenty-sixth in the league with a 75.9% average.
In addition, the Solar Bears are fourth in the league for penalty minutes at 1332. The Stingrays are 20th at 922. Clearly, the Solar Bears will need to be smart in terms of penalties, and they will need to be disciplined and relentless when playing down a man.
The Stingrays are going to be looking for opportunities to go on the power play, and when playing up a man, they are going to be especially aggressive. The Stingrays will see the man advantage as their gateway to winning the series.
How the Solar Bears Win:
The Solar Bears have the greatest chance of an upset in the ECHL this round. They proved at the beginning of the season that they can stand up to South Carolina’s defense and get past their tough goaltending. They also showed last year in the opening round that they can provide some playoff surprises and fireworks.
The one thing Orlando cannot do is fall behind. Falling behind at any point in the series will put them in a tough hole that will be difficult to climb out of. However, if they can at least split the opening games in North Charleston, they could take advantage of the loud Amway Center crowd to give it the extra juice it needs to pull off the upset. The Solar Bears are seventh in the league in average attendance at 5461. Orlando’s attendance numbers are likely to be significantly higher in the playoffs.
Orlando will need solid, consistent defense with everyone dedicated to their roles on the defensive side, and they will also want to secure quick, clean breakouts from the defensive zone to take advantage of the speed of players like Max Novak, Martins Dzierkals, and Kale Kerbashian.
One curious statistic: The Solar Bears are undefeated when either Dzierkals or Hunter Fejes scores a goal.