By Andrew Miller
The Post and Courier
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – Zach Tarkir walked into the South Carolina Stingrays locker room, sweat dripping from his face after Thursday’s practice.
Kiser’s remark produces a cryptic smile from the soft-spoken defenseman, but the moniker fits nicely.
Tarkir and the Stingrays return to the ice on Saturday when they take on Cincinnati in Game 1 of the best-of-seven American Conference finals beginning at 7 p.m. at the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Stingrays are coming off an emotional high after wrapping up their South Division final series with Florida on Tuesday night. During the epic six-game series, Tarkir recorded two dramatic overtime game-winning goals, including his series-clinching goal in
Game 6 that ended the Everblades’ season. Both goals came at Germain Arena, where the Everblades compiled the best home record in the ECHL during the regular season.
“Getting an overtime goal is always great because it means you’ve won a game,” Tarkir said. “But to get two in the same series against a team like Florida in the playoffs is special and probably something I’ll remember for a while.”
The first goal came midway through the first overtime period of Game 1 when Trent Campbell fed Tarkir from behind the net.
“I was just coming on the ice on a change, and Trent had the puck behind the net,” Tarkir said. “I just came down the slot, and I knew he’d see me. He put it right on my tape, and I just put it in.”
After the Stingrays squandered a two-goal lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation in Game 6, Tarkir’s slap shot silenced the normally raucous crowd at Germain Arena and propelled the Stingrays into the conference finals.
“Zach’s goal was such a huge relief for everyone, especially after watching the last two minutes of the game when we thought we had it locked it up and they score two goals,” Kiser said. “I think I was clinically dead twice up in the stands, and then I was revived when Zack scored that goal. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
Tarkir was mobbed by about half the team in neutral ice. The other half jumped on goalie Jonathan Boutin, who stopped 49 of 52 shots.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen two celebration piles after one game, but Jonathan really deserved it,” Tarkir said. “He really kept us in the game all night and I just happened to get the game winner.”
After the Charlotte and Florida series, Tarkir is second on the team in scoring during the playoffs with four goals and eight assists. Tarkir’s 12 points are third among all defensemen in the ECHL in the postseason.
“I felt like during the regular season Zach wasn’t shooting the puck enough,” said South Carolina coach Jared Bednar. “Even now in the playoffs, I still feel like he can shoot the puck more. He’s got a great shot. It seems like he has simplified his game a little bit and shooting the puck more, and it’s going in for him.
“He certainly has scored some big goals during the playoffs. The one he got in Game 6 to end the series with Florida is as big a goal as any goal in franchise history. That was a huge goal because I’m not sure how much we would have had in the tank for a Game 7.”
Tarkir spent more time with Portland, of the American Hockey League, than he did with the Stingrays during the regular season. Tarkir said his time in the AHL helped refine his game. In 32 games with the Pirates, Tarkir had three goals and four assists.
“I got a lot of ice time with Portland, so I gained a lot of confidence,” Tarkir said. “I handle the puck down here a lot more than I did in Portland. It’s a different style of play down here. You’ve got to do a little more work, but I’ve got the confidence after being in the American League that I can make a play or two when I have to.”
Tarkir said the Stingrays will have little time to rest on their laurels going into their series with Cyclones.
“I know some of the guys on (the Cincinnati) roster and I’ve played against some of their guys,” Tarkir said. “They’ve got a good team. We’ve got to put what happened with Florida behind us and focus on Cincinnati. I know it’s going to be a tough series.”