By Andrew Miller
The Post and Courier
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The South Carolina Stingrays advanced to the American Conference final last year before losing in five games to Cincinnati, which eventually won the Kelly Cup championship.
The Stingrays open their best-of-seven South Division semifinal series with Charlotte on Thursday at the Extreme Ice Center in Indian Trail, N.C.
The Stingrays have won two Kelly Cup championships, in 1997 and 2001. If they are going to capture a third ECHL title, they will have to answer the following five questions:
While Parley (7-4-3, 2.87 GAA, .895 save) and Johnson (3-2-1, 2.39 GAA, .913 save) put up respectable numbers in the postseason, they combined to lose four games in overtime.
Stingrays coach Jared Bednar thought he had his goalie issues settled when he signed Bobby Goepfert in the offseason. Then the Washington
Capitals assigned highly regarded prospect Michal Neuvirth to the Stingrays in November.
But Goepfert left for Austria in January and Neuvirth, who played for the Caps this season, was called up to Hershey and isn’t on the playoff roster.
Bednar worked deals to bring both Boutin and Reimer to the Stingrays and both have performed well, especially Reimer.
Reimer, 21, appears to have the hot hand going into the postseason with a 6-0-0 mark and a 1.32 goals-against average and a ridiculous .961 save percentage.
The more seasoned Boutin, who has played in the American Hockey League in each of the last three seasons, was 23-10-3 with Victoria and the Stingrays during the regular season.
“You can’t win a Kelly Cup without two goalies,” Bednar said. “When we’ve won titles both goalies have had to step up at some point in the playoffs, and I don’t see that changing. We’ve got confidence that both guys can get the job done.”
2. Can the rookies continue to score in the playoffs?
The top two regular season goal scorers were Michael Dubuc (35) and Maxime Lacroix (33). Teams tighten up defensively at playoff time and it might take a few games for them to adjust to the higher intensity level, less open ice and less time on the puck.
Dubuc also missed the last three weeks with a concussion and might be tentative in his first couple of playoff games.
Lacroix plays with more of an edge and scores the dirty goals in front of the net that are so common in the postseason.
“I don’t see why Michael and Maxime can’t be successful in the playoffs,” Bednar said. “They’ve proven they can score in the regular season.”
3. Can the team become more consistent in the playoffs?
The Stingrays have been on a roller coaster since January, when they were a dismal 4-9, including a five-game skid to end the month. Some injuries and call-ups accounted for some of their lack of success, and a fluid goalie situation didn’t help matters. But Bednar was also concerned about the team’s lack of consistency in that stretch.
“We just didn’t put together very many good performances,” Bednar said.
In February, the Stingrays righted the ship, finishing with 20 wins in their last 28 games.
“I think the guys answered the consistency question at the end of the season,” Bednar said. “We certainly are going to have to prove ourselves on a nightly basis, but I like the way we finished the season.”
4. Will the Stingrays have all of their players in the lineup?
Pokulok and Dubuc are each returning from concussions.
Farynuk and Kroll won’t be back until their teams are finished in the AHL, which could be this week or next month. Dubuc played in the final game of the regular season and appears to be OK.
Pokulok, who has a history of concussions, is the biggest question mark, but will be available for Game 1.
Godfrey won’t be ready until the second round if the Stingrays can get past Charlotte.
5. Can the special teams get it done in the playoffs?
The Stingrays had the ECHL’s top power play at 22 percent and the sixth-best penalty kill (84.3) during the regular season.
Figure in their league- leading 16 short-handed goals and their penalty kill was actually near the top of the league as well.
A year ago, the power play clicked at 13.5 percent in the playoffs, which hurt the Stingrays as the playoffs progressed.
“As you get deeper into the playoffs, it gets harder and harder to score on the power play,” Bednar said. “Most of the time the best teams have the best special teams. I like the way our special teams performed during the regular season, and hopefully we can continue that level of success in the playoffs.”