CINCINNATI — There’s no such thing as a bad shot. Just ask Nikita Kashirsky.
Kashirsky scored with 2:49 left in regulation and Jonathan Boutin made 22 saves as South Carolina rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat Cincinnati, 3-2, and sweep the Cyclones in the American Conference final Friday night before a crowd of 3,933 at U.S. Bank Arena.
The Stingrays, who won for the sixth straight time in the playoffs, advanced to the franchise’s third Kelly Cup final and will take on Alaska at Sullivan Arena beginning next Friday (11:15 p.m. ET).
The Stingrays, who now have tied Hampton Roads for the most appearances in the ECHL’s championship series, won Kelly Cup titles in 1997 and 2001.
“I’m awful proud of the guys in the locker room,” said Stingrays coach Jared Bednar. “The way they came back tonight and stuck with it like they’ve done all season long showed a tremendous amount of character. We started at the beginning of the season trying to build a team that could compete for the Kelly Cup, and now we’re going to get that opportunity.
“Give the guys a lot of credit because they really dug in from the second period on and got back into the game. We had to weather a little bit of a storm from Cincinnati in the first period, but we battled back, got a couple of goals and tied things up going into the final period.” The Stingrays’ game-winning goal came on a fluky play after Cincinnati goalie Ryan Nie tried to clear the puck from behind the net. The puck squirted around the boards, took a funny bounce and landed right on the stick of Kashirsky just inside the blue line.
“I was coming off the bench on a late change and I was hoping the puck would bounce toward the middle of the ice,” said Kashirsky, who had the game-winning overtime goal in Game 5 against Florida. “The puck bounced right to me and I didn’t have anything else to do but put it on net.”
Kashirsky’s shot bounced off a Cyclones defender in front of the net and trickled past Nie for the score.
“Goals at the end of regulation and overtime never seem to be pretty,” Kashirsky said. “You get a lucky bounce or you’re in the right place at the right time and just make a play. We got a little lucky tonight, but I’ll take it.”
Just two seconds after a holding penalty to Stingrays defenseman Patrick Wellar expired, Santorelli beat Boutin with a wrist shot in the high slot.
Cincinnati pushed its advantage to 2-0 just 27 seconds into their second power play when McKenzie jammed the puck past Boutin after a scrum in front of the net.
“I didn’t think we had played that badly in the first period, I just didn’t think we were competing at the level that Cincinnati was,” Bednar said. “Cincinnati was playing desperate hockey, and we needed to match their intensity level.”
Godfrey, making his first appearance in the playoffs after suffering an upper-body injury in late March, blasted a shot past Nie to cut the gap to 2-1 at the 7:49 mark of the second period.
“Great to see Josh get back out there and make an impact,” Bednar said. “He’d been shooting the puck really well in practice and he just let a bomb go off from the point on that goal. Not many goalies are going to make that save.”
Lacroix tied the score at 2 five minutes later on a short-handed goal. Lacroix picked up a loose puck along the boards in neutral ice, skated into the Cyclones zone and wristed a shot past Nei for the score.
“I thought Maxime was the best player in this series,” Bednar said. “He played well in all three zones for us and he had a couple of big goals.”