NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays (15-12-6-2) are looking to maintain their momentum after convincingly sweeping then ECHL frontrunner Fort Wayne Komets (10-4-2-1) last weekend. The Stingrays had success on the power play, as well as phenomenal goaltending by Alex Dubeau and Hunter Shepard. Dubeau posted two wins in his two starts with an incredible .974 save percentage and a 1.00 goals against average. Dubeau’s play earned him ECHL Goalie of the Week honors from the ECHL.
The Stingrays still have work to do to reclaim a playoff spot as at the midpoint of the season they find themselves in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. Their next seven games are against the two teams directly ahead of them in the standings, the Orlando Solar Bears and the Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
The Stingrays find themselves at the midpoint of their season behind where they want to be but feeling confident going forward. A long winless streak forced them into sixth place in the standings after being as high as second at points early in the season. The team knows they have work to do and the upcoming stretch of games against Orlando and Greenville will go a long way into pulling them back into playoff contention or propelling a rival into a commanding lead in the standings. Looking further down the schedule the Stingrays will see the Indy Fuel and Wheeling Nailers, teams that aren’t in the regular South Division rotation.
“I am happy with where we are headed but we’re not in a place we want to be in right now,” said head coach Ryan Blair. “So that means we’re going to have to continue to find ways to get better and continue to find ways to work harder and smarter. It was a good weekend but we have a long ways to go still as a group. When you look at the schedule it’s nice to have different teams on there and you have to have a new focus, a new approach. It’s good to have some teams we haven’t seen in a while coming into our schedule soon.”
Coming into the weekend series against Orlando, the Stingrays will be without Max Novak who was placed on the injured reserve this week. He is expected to miss a few weeks but is not expected to be a long term injury. Forwards Matt Weis and Graham Knott are expected to be available soon. With Novak being on the IR, the Stingrays have brought in Sacred Heart forward Marc Johnstone. The two-year captain at Sacred Heart is a solid scorer and played under former Stingrays head coach Steve Bergin who is an assistant coach at the university now.
The Stingrays are in a position to flip the standings over the next two weeks if they can maintain their momentum from the Fort Wayne series.
“I thought we got out to pretty good starts in all of our games. Special teams was really solid for the most part. Overall I thought special teams was the big difference and our goaltending was really, really, solid. Giving up four goals in three games is something we’re proud of. We have to give up less chances but at the same time I thought our goalies were unbelievable,” complimented Blair. “Chances were about even the first night, they out chanced us by two in the second night and by four or five on the last night. So that’s obviously an area we will continue to focus on, limiting other team’s chances. The shot totals don’t always tell the whole story. We need to give up less grade A scoring chances, they out chanced up but had a lot of shots from the corner or blue line where the goalie could see it all the way in.”
The offense found some of its early-season success as the team put up back-to-back five goal nights for the first time this year.
“I think five out of 10 goals were on the power play, but it doesn’t matter,” said Blair. “You have to find different ways to score whether it is five on five or your special teams. I thought that was really good and more of a confidence thing for our guys that we can score and we can win hockey games by scoring goals.”
The Stingrays have benefitted from having Dubeau and Shepard back together in the lineup. Dubeau’s return has seemed to give the Stingrays a jump lately.
“He’s been really solid for us and we really missed him when he was up in Hershey but I think he gained valuable experience up there and had a great time learning what it’s like at the next level even though he’s been there a little bit. I think it was really good for him to get that taste and work with Alex Westlund.” Blair said, “Ever since he’s been back he’s been solid, we just have to be a little bit better in front of him. They are both really solid goalies at this level and can win you hockey games and that’s what you need out of both guys. It’s a really good tandem. With Shepard going up, it’s never really certain on how long he will be up or down but we’re extremely fortunate to have him in our lineup.”
The defense has seen a lot of turnover with guys going up to play at the AHL level. Macoy Erkamps has been up with Hershey after starting the first eight games in South Carolina. He is coming off of an injury and has been sent down for a rehab stint that could be a short as this weekend but could be stretched out a bit longer depending on the needs of Hershey. With Erkamps being sent down it triggered a trade that sent defender Jesse Lees to the Wheeling Nailers for future considerations.
“He’s done all the right things with us. We weren’t able to give him a consistent role night in and night out,” explained Blair. “He can deserve that. But we had some similar players that we felt were above him on the depth chart. It’s the hardest part of the job. You can’t keep everyone and it’s my job to manage it and keep guys competing and engaged. Keep guys on their toes and not let any complacency set in at all.”
The Stingrays have added size to their defense in the past few weeks with Ryan Cook and Chase Stewart coming in and helping the team rediscover their winning ways.
“Cook’s done a great job coming in and filling a hole that we had. He’s been really solid. He keeps things simple. He’s a big body. He’s improved since he’s been down here which is encouraging for him and for us. We’re going to see if we can keep him around a little longer than we initially thought as more of a hole filler. But we will see after this weekend what things look like,” said Blair. “And Stewart, he’s a solid solid defender. He brings that element of toughness to our lineup that I think is really important. He’s hard at the net front and guys on our team and guys on the other team, they respect him and they know when he is on the ice. We’re really happy with his addition and really excited with what he can continue to bring to our lineup every single night.”
The Stingrays and Solar Bears kick off their weekend series tonight at 7:05 pm ET at the North Charleston Coliseum.