NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays (12-12-6-2) are struggling. The perennial South Division contender finds themselves nearing the halfway point of the 2020-21 season languishing in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, with only the top four teams making the abbreviated 2021 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
The team knows that things have to change and change soon.
The upcoming eight-game home-stand has to be where it starts and continues if the Stingrays want to keep their playoff hopes alive. After this weekend’s three-game set with the Fort Wayne Komets (10-1-2-1), the following eight matchups are against the three teams fighting for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, Jacksonville (fifth place), Orlando (fourth place), and Greenville (third place). The next 11 games will likely determine if the Stingrays can climb back into a playoff spot.
“We need wins,” said Coach Ryan Blair. “We have to have a playoff mentality heading into the next 10 games, and beyond. We’ve addressed it in practice with the group and we’ve had a really solid week in practice. We’re moving in the right direction and the group understands where we are at…….. We have to focus on our game, especially in our own end.”
The Stingrays currently have five defensemen in the AHL. None are expected back anytime soon. Blair knows he has a group of relatively inexperienced blue-liners compared to most teams. He has also made several moves to bring more size to the back end. Chase Stewart is expected to make his Stingrays debut against his former team this weekend. Stewart spent part of the last two seasons in Fort Wayne and brings a big 6-foot-3 frame and a physical game to the ice. He notched 81 PIMs in 30 games last year.
“By the time we might get some help from the AHL it may be too late for our season. We have to, and can, make it with the guys we have,” said Blair. “We can’t worry about who and when we might get someone back. We have some guys that aren’t very experienced at this level but it’s a solid group that can get the job done.”
The Stingrays also anticipate having forwards Dan DeSalvo and Mark Cooper back this weekend. Their leadership and playmaking ability should be a shot in the arm to an offense that only scored three goals in their past three games. For comparison, the team averaged 3.42 goals per game over the first 12 games of the season.
Alex Dubeau will have to shoulder the load in net for the Stingrays, since Hunter Shepard was recalled to Hershey on Wednesday. The Stingrays moved quickly to bring in Sean Romeo from Kansas City in a trade for future considerations. This will be the former Ohio State netminder’s sixth ECHL team in two seasons as he looks to get his pro career on track.
Call-ups have impacted the Stingrays on defense and in goal, but the most puzzling aspect of the team’s performance is the lack of goal production by an incredibly talented forward corps. The forward group’s amount of experience, combined with the close ties that many of them share, should not lead to a team being outscored 15-29 in the first period and seemingly slow to get started most games.
It begs the question of whether there are too many friends and not enough teammates in the locker room? Are friendships getting in the way of teammates holding one another accountable on the ice?
One would hope not, but whatever is holding this team back from reaching its potential has to get fixed soon if they are to climb back into the playoff hunt.