The 2003 Kelly Cup Finals open Wednesday with Columbia hosting Atlantic City. The Inferno and the Boardwalk Bullies are both in their second season and are making their first-ever Finals appearance.
Columbia and Atlantic City did not meet in the regular season. The Inferno did play 15 games against teams from the Northeast Division compiling an 8-6-1 record. Atlantic City only played two games against teams from the Southeast Division going 1-0-1 with a win against Augusta and a shootout loss against Pee Dee.
The Boardwalk Bullies have qualified for the postseason in each of the two seasons since moving to Atlantic City, losing to Dayton in the Northern Conference Finals in 2002. The Inferno has qualified for the playoffs in each of its first two seasons, losing to Pee Dee in the Southeast Division Semifinals in 2002.
Columbia secured its berth with a 4-2 win over Mississippi in Game 6 of the Southern Conference Finals on Friday, improving its home record in the playoffs to 7-0. Columbia finished atop the Southern Conference and third overall in the ECHL with 96 points in the regular season. The Inferno swept Greenville in the Southeast Division Semifinals and swept Pee Dee in the Southeast Division Finals.
The Inferno won its first nine postseason games before losing 3-1 at Mississippi on April 28. The nine consecutive wins ties the second-longest playoff winning streak set by Toledo en route to the 1994 Riley Cup Championship. The longest winning streak in the ECHL postseason is 11 games by Richmond in 1999.
Atlantic City advanced to the Finals with a 3-2 win over Cincinnati in Game 7 of the Northern Conference Finals on Saturday. The Boardwalk Bullies finished atop the Northeast Division and fourth overall in the ECHL with 94 points. Atlantic City swept Trenton in the Northeast Division Semifinals and beat Greensboro, three games to one, in the Northeast Division Finals.
With the exception of Hampton Roads in 1998, every East Coast Hockey League Champion has finished in the Top Five in the regular season standings. Hampton Roads finished 18th overall and qualified for the postseason on the final day of the regular season. Only once in ECHL history has a team finished first in the regular season and gone on to win in the postseason – South Carolina in 1997.
Columbia is looking to become the third straight team from South Carolina to win the Kelly Cup joining the Greenville Grrrowl (2002) and the South Carolina Stingrays (2001). The Stingrays are the only team to win the Kelly Cup twice, including the first-ever Kelly Cup in 1997. The state of South Carolina has produced the winner three of the six years that the Kelly Cup has been awarded.
The Southern Conference produced the first-ever recipient of the Kelly Cup, South Carolina in 1997, and it has produced four of the first six Kelly Cup winners, including the past two, Greenville in 2002 and South Carolina in 2001. Hampton Roads won the Kelly Cup in 1998 while Mississippi won in 1999 and Peoria won in 2000.
Atlantic City coach Mike Haviland was an assistant coach with Trenton when it lost to South Carolina in the Kelly Cup Finals in 2001. Columbia coach Scott White helped Greensboro win the ECHL Championship in his first professional season in 1989-90 and helped the Monarchs return to the ECHL Finals in 1991.
Mike Nicholishen of Atlantic City is the only player in the 2003 Finals that already has his name on the Kelly Cup, earning the honor with South Carolina in 2001.