The ECHL Western Conference champion Allen Americans knew their opponent in this Kelly Cup final series would be tough and opportunistic. The East Conference champion South Carolina Stingrays from North Charleston have been that and a whole lot more while taking Games 1 and 3 at the Allen Event Center for a 2-1 series lead.
The Stingrays forwards in general have swiftly moved the puck up ice and created scoring opportunities. In particular, their top trio of Wayne Simpson, Andrew Rose and Derek DeBlois has scored or assisted on eight of the team’s 10 goals through the first three matches.
Games 4-6 will be played at the North Charleston Coliseum on Sunday, June 7, Tuesday, June 9 and (if necessary) Wednesday, June 10, with each game beginning at 7 p.m. (EDT). A Game 7 (if necessary) is scheduled for Allen on Sunday, June 14 with a 4 p.m. (CDT) puck drop.
The 3-3-1 format was necessitated by the availability of both teams’ arenas. The Stingrays were permitted to make the final line changes as if they were the home team in Game 3 in Allen, and Allen will do so in Game 6 in South Carolina.
The Americans have played well against the Stingrays to the point of outskating them during stretches of the first three games, but a team that netted a league-best 292 goals during the regular season has struggled to light the lamp with a frequency commensurate with their offensive dominance.
“We had plenty of opportunities but didn’t score, which made it a frustrating game,” said Allen GM/Coach Steve Martinson after his team outshot South Carolina by a 40-18 margin but lost Game 3. “I thought we outplayed them, we did a lot of things better tonight, but we just didn’t win the game.”
In addition to missing the net, Allen also was guilty of several defensive gaffes, none more telling than their blue line’s inability to move the puck through the neutral zone while trailing 2-1 late in the third period.
South Carolina defenseman Michal Cajkovsky gloved an ill-timed dump-in attempt and found Rowe for a back-breaking breakaway goal that made it 3-1 with just over three minutes left in regulation. Simpson, whose 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) have set a single-season Kelly Cup playoff scoring record, added an empty net goal to complete the scoring.
“We were four-on-four and had control of the puck but turned it over, their forward got behind our defense and that resulted in their breakaway,” said Martinson. “You can’t turn the puck over when their (best line) is on the ice.
Stingrays goalie Jeff Jakaitis earned plaudits after making 39 saves. “Jeff was the MVP tonight, no question he was at the top of his game,” said South Carolina coach Spencer Carbery. “He played the caliber of hockey that made him the (2014-15 ECHL MVP in addition to 2013-14 and 2014-15 ECHL Goalie of the Year). He made some huge, huge saves, especially in the third period when we were under attack. Allen put a ton of pressure on us and he made some big saves in some pivotal moments. He stepped up in a key time when we needed him the most.”
Allen forward Chris Crane finally beat Jakaitis early in the third period after Cajkovsky (second period) and Rowe (third, assisted by Simpson) had given the Stingrays a 2-0 lead. “We did a lot of things better tonight, but just didn’t win,” said Martinson. “We’re optimistic going forward, though.”
Allen tied the series at a game apiece in Game 2 as forward Gary Steffes netted a pair of second period goals to give the home team a 3-0 lead. Forwards Spencer Asuchak and Dyson Stevenson and defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser (empty netter) also scored for Allen, which barely outshot the Stingrays as goalie Riley Gill made 21 saves.
“The good thing is, we finished (our scoring chances),” said Martinson. “We got to their goalies (Jakaitis and Clay Witt) and (Gill) was better than theirs tonight. We’re used to carrying the puck in more than (South Carolina is) allowing us and they work really hard. They always have a guy back and they don’t cheat at all. They don’t give you much.”
Allen dropped Game 1, its initial loss after scoring the first goal of the game in this year’s playoff run. Defenseman Trevor Ludwig gave Allen a quick 1-0 lead less than a minute into the game, but the Stingrays’ top line struck for three red lights in a 7:05 span – one by Rowe and two more from Simpson. Allen rallied with second and third period goals to forge a 3-3 tie and went on the power play. But after an anemic offensive showing during the man advantage, Sean Dolan outworked an Allen defenseman for a loose puck and beat Gill for a shorthanded goal midway through the third period.
“Our defense was not ready for their top scoring line,” said Martinson. “We need more guys in the battle…we didn’t get enough from the top guys tonight.”