NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – As the end of the regular season approaches, the South Carolina Stingrays are focused on the work left to be done to finish out the regular season on a high note. The Stingrays sit only three points behind the Florida Everblades with 13 games remaining for each in the race for the South Division title. The Stingrays are also only four points behind the Toledo Walleye, with three games in hand, for the Henry Brabham Cup which is also serving as motivation. Having guaranteed home ice for the playoffs would be huge for the team and their playoff run. The Stingrays have no intention of coasting into the playoffs and will face a tough opponent in the Idaho Steelheads this week.
The Current Foe
Idaho is on the cusp of securing a playoff spot and has a magic number of eight entering the two game set against South Carolina. A hard fought series should ensue as the teams match up well on paper. Idaho has the seventh-ranked scoring offense in the league and pairs it with the fifth-best defense in terms of goals against. The Steelheads also average over five minutes more a game in penalty minutes than the Stingrays.
Shots on goal could be the bellwether stat for the two games. The Steelheads average 36.58 shots on goal, third-best in the league, while the Stingrays only allow 27.64 shots on goal, second-best in the league. South Carolina’s defensive corps will need to tighten up the passing lanes to keep Idaho’s chances to a minimum.
Special teams will most likely decide the games. Can the Stingrays and their fifth-ranked home power play break the Steelhead’s 10th-ranked road penalty kill or will the Steelheads’ 15th-ranked road powerp lay find a way to solve the Stingrays’ fifth-ranked home penalty kill? The Steelheads will be playing in front of two rookie netminders as their main tandem is currently in the AHL. However, they will be bringing three 50-point scorers to the tilts, including former Stingray Steven McParland.
New faces have been popping up for the Stingrays over the past month. Callups, injuries and trades have forced several line up shuffles. The Stingrays have even had to skate with just 15 skaters recently.
Three new forwards from the college ranks, Tad Kozun, Leo Fitzgerald and Tyler Whitney, have come in to fill the voids in the lines. New addition Mike Panowyk seeks to debut this week after Whitney’s release. The now long-term, loan of Andrew Cherniwchan to the Utica Comets, recent recalls of Tim McGauley and Hampus Gustafsson by the Hershey Bears and the departure of Robbie Baillargeon via trade to the Orlando Solar Bears created the opportunities for the rookies. Additionally, injuries to Patrick Megannety and Trevor Gillies have kept them out of the lineup for over a month. Kelly Zajac and Dylan Margonari at times have also had to sit for a few games to get healthy.
Down to five healthy defensemen at one point, the Stingrays needed capable players. On defense, Mike Chen earned a call up from the Knoxville Ice Bears of the SPHL. Acquired in a trade with the Adirondack Thunder, Evan Neugold logged three games before returning to the Knoxville Ice Bears. Tim Davison and Derek Pratt are scheduled for their pro debuts against Idaho.
Call ups further compounded the issue on defense. Joey Leach was on loan to the Hartford Wolf Pack. Frankie Simonelli is on loan to the Utica Comets. Paul Geiger and Tommy Hughes were recalled to Hershey. Leach, Geiger and Hughes have all recently returned to South Carolina. However, Kris Bindulis was just recalled to Hershey. Additionally, Travis Walsh is still out after being injured in Toledo last week.
The Road Ahead
For fans looking ahead to the post season, they can take heart that the roster should be full again. The coaching staff will have some difficult decisions to make as they form their playoff roster. Fitzgerald, Chen and the rest of the new players are making strong cases that they should be joining the Stingrays on their playoff run.
Additionally, all players currently in the AHL should be available for South Carolina for the playoffs as well. Hershey is unlikely to pull off an impressive win streak in its last 13 games to make the playoffs. Bindulis, McGauley and Gustafsson should be sent down for the playoff run here. While the Utica Comets are currently well on the way to make the Calder Cup Playoffs, their NHL affiliate, the Vancouver Canucks, is not in the hunt for the Stanley Cup this year. Four waiver-exempt players in Vancouver are eligible for assignment in Utica. This, in turn, should allow Simonelli and Cherniwchan to return to South Carolina at some point. Unfortunately, this means some good players will not make the 23 man playoff roster.