Stingrays Keep Checkers in Check

CHARLOTTE, NC — With the days and games remaining swiftly peeling off the calendar, the South Carolina Stingrays headed into an important weekend with a Thursday night road game against the Checkers in Charlotte. The first of three games in three nights (the Rays return home to host the Reading Royals on Friday and Saturday), this weekend’s slate represents 20 percent of South Carolina’s remaining games this season. The fact that the Checkers currently occupy the fifth and final playoff spot in the ECHL’s South Division only added to the magnitude of the contest.

The Stingrays got the job done, and in fine fashion. They put a convincing 6-2 hurting on the Checkers to pull within two points of Charlotte in the standings. The two teams meet for the final time this season on Mar. 25 at North Charleston Coliseum, one of the Rays’ six remaining home dates in 2006-07.

“Obviously the win is huge for us right now,” said Stingrays coach Jason Fitzsimmons after the game. “The way we did it was convincing. It was gritty. There are guys in this lineup who shouldn’t be in this lineup. They know it’s a big game, led by one of our leaders, [defenseman] Nate Kiser. Words can’t explain how big of an emotional boost to the team it was seeing Nate playing tonight when he was still supposed to two weeks away [from returning to the lineup]. I think that emotional boost alone really jump-started us tonight, and the guys went out and played a good hockey game.”

Thursday night’s game did not get off to a great start for South Carolina. The Stingrays’ Cam McCaffrey went off for tripping at 5:19 of the first (he would more than redeem himself later), and the Checkers jumped out in front on a Blake Bellefeuille power play strike. Two nights after digging a 5-1 first period hole for themselves on home ice against Columbia, the Rays were determined not to let it happen again.

Just 46 seconds after the Checkers took the lead, the Rays evened it up on Chris Chaput’s 18th goal of the season. Chaput drove the net and chipped home a feed from the circle after Charlotte goaltender Chris Holt’s ill-advised clearing attempt was kept in at the blueline. McCaffrey and Peter Szabo assisted. Eighty seconds after Chaput’s goal, Bellefeuille struck again. As the late man entering the zone, he converted a perfect feed from Mark Lee to restore Charlotte’s one-goal advantage.

Lee went off on a kneeing minor at 15:27 of the first, giving the Stingrays their first extra-man chance of the night. Just a few seconds into the advantage, Szabo drifted to the high shot and let go of a shot that dribbled off a skate and wide of the cage. But Chaput was in perfect position, parked just to the side of the crease. He tapped it in to even the score at 2-2 with less than four minutes remaining in the initial frame. Brendan Bernakevitch also assisted.

Less than five minutes into the second period, defenseman T.J. McElroy took the puck wide down the right wing and into the offensive zone. As he approached the goal line, his options for a pass to the front dried up. Rather than trying to force a low percentage play, he did the smart thing. He put the puck on the net and it found a hole, Holt’s five-hole to be exact. McElroy’s seventh of the season gave the Stingrays a lead they would not relinquish.

Charlotte got into some penalty trouble midway through the second period, allowing South Carolina to add to its lead. The Checkers were 24 seconds away from killing a Lee tripping minor when Kenton Smith was whistled for slashing. The penalty gave the Rays a two-man advantage for 22 seconds, and a crucial offensive zone draw ensued. South Carolina won the face-off, pulling the puck back to the point. It came to Marc Busenburg on the right side, and he cruised in a few feet before blasting a shot that Holt was able to stop, but not corral. Bernakevitch was able to whack it into the cage before Holt could cover up.

Less than four minutes later, the Rays’ lead would balloon to three goals. Kiser, a surprise starter just nine days removed from elbow surgery, whacked a waist-high change-up past Holt after a Checkers turnover in the neutral zone. The puck had pinballed around before popping into the air, and Kiser hit a line drive with the shaft of his stick. It was a nice reward for a guy who was nowhere near 100 percent, but who insisted on playing anyway. Kiser and Viktor Dovgan — who had another impressive night with both his stick and his body in his own end — form a formidable shutdown tandem.

Another nice reward came in the third period when McCaffrey netted his 11th of the season after another Charlotte turnover. The goal completed the Gordie Howe Hat Trick for McCaffrey, who also finished at plus-3 on the evening. He had dropped the gloves with Charlotte’s Zdenek Bahensky in the first period. McCaffrey had been a bulldog all night, especially on the South Carolina penalty kill. Szabo collected his third assist of the contest on the play, and his 40th of the season. Szabo has had three assists in each of the last two games and is now 11th in the ECHL in that department.

Stingrays goaltender Davis Parley had an extremely solid night, making big saves when they were needed, both at even strength and on the power play. He stopped 36 of 38 shots to record his 26th win of the season. Parley is tied with ex-Cap Matt Yeats of the Texas Wildcatters for second in the league in wins. Idaho’s Steve Silverthorn leads with 29.

Getting two points from Charlotte is huge, but the Rays will have little time to rest on their laurels. Just as the South Carolina team bus was pulling out of Charleston for the three-hour ride to Charlotte for Thursday’s game, the Reading team bus was pulling into its North Charleston hotel. The Royals were resting and relaxing while the Rays were combating the Checkers in Charlotte. After three games in three nights this weekend, South Carolina plays five times in six nights from Mar. 13-18. Three of those five contests come against the second place Florida Everblades.

“Everyone contributed tonight,” said Fitzsimmons. “It was all business here and it’s got to be all business from here on in. [Friday] is a huge game. We can enjoy this on the bus ride home and then tomorrow we’ve got Reading, who is sitting at home idle listening to this game. We’re going to have to enjoy this for a couple hours and then start focusing on the Reading Royals.”

NOTES: South Carolina is now 7-18-4 when the opposition scores the game’s first goal … The Rays are a perfect 21-0 when leading after 40 minutes of play … Goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck, a member of the 2006 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, will be in Charleston on Friday when he is inducted into the Stingrays Hall of Fame … Holt was 6-1 with a 2.36 goals against average in eight previous games against the Stingrays this season, prior to Thursday night’s tilt.

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2 Comments on “Stingrays Keep Checkers in Check”

  1. keith vorhis Says:

    Mike, it was indeed a pleasure to meet you at the north charleston coliseum. we hope we can see you again. I have been hanging around the stingrays hockey team for a long time now and have enjoyed every minute it. Your presence here`was a big lift to all of us, I know Mike kelly enjoyed having you as a co radio voice to our fans. I am thorughly amazed at the work you do and so well.sincerly Keith——

  2. keith vorhis Says:

    Mike, thanks for the visit to the stingrays this past week,it really was an eye opener to see the work our affiliation does. we really love hockey in the charleston area as do others in the state of south caro- lina.Knowing that our stingrays fill empty holes in the ahl and the nhl makes us proud to be a part pf the program. thanks again for the visit. ===Keith===

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