Photo via the South Carolina Stingrays’ Facebook
You could say that the Eastern Conference finals in the ECHL was one for the ages.
The South Carolina Stingrays went up three games to none, looking like they would have their first playoff sweep since 2009. However, the Toledo Walleye had other plans and came back to tie up the series setting up for an epic Game 7. To that point, every game was a one-goal game with Game 6 ending with rookie sensation Tyler Barnes scoring the overtime winner to see if they could come all way the way back.
Then Game 7 actually did happen and it was more than anyone could have ever expected.
It was a chess match of biblical proportions in front of the standing room only crowd of 8,300 in the Huntington Center in Toledo. The Walleye started off strong, taking control in the first half of regulation, trying to make sure the momentum they had from not only Game 6, but from coming all the way back didn’t wear off. Justin Mercier had the best chance for the Walleye, breaking in on Jeff Jakaitis with plenty of room to move, but being denied. That could have been when the Stingrays decided to up the pressure on their on midway through the second period and into the third, dominating the Walleye in their own end, forcing Jeff Lerg to come up big in his own net.
The end of regulation saw this would be the seventh one-goal game of the series and make sure fans on both sides were clutching at their rally towels tightly.
The first overtime was frantic and thanks to some skill (and luck from his posts), Jakaitis was able to withstand the flurry of shots the Walleye were able to put forth, while down the other end; Lerg came up as big for his side– though he didn’t have to be as acrobatic as his counterpart. The 26 shots generated by both teams in that frame showed that it was run-and-gun with both teams hoping that if they fired enough at the net– something would be made of it.
With a little bit of a tighter checking second overtime, it brought about the only power play. Troy Schwab of the Walleye was called for hooking at the mid-point of the 2nd OT, but the Stingrays couldn’t convert– which gave the Walleye a bit of a momentum boost. The Walleye took that boost and peppered Jakaitis after that, putting seven shots on him– including one that almost squirted through his legs, but the defense was able to push it back under Jakaitis to keep the game even through two overtimes.
You could sense something was going to happen. The teams had already played the longest Game 7 in ECHL history and during the 3rd OT, they would have played the longest 0-0 game in ECHL playoff history. Something had to give. Early on, it was almost the Stingrays who gave it up entirely. Thanks to some great puck movement, the Walleye were able to draw the Stingrays’ defense on one side, opening up Martin Frk on the opposite wing for a tremendous opportunity….but whether the puck when on end or just bad luck; Frk put it over the net keeping the game knotted at one.
For the Walleye– it was a heart-breaking defeat; but one during a season they shouldn’t be ashamed of. Under a new head coach (and Coach of the Year) in Derek Lalonde and with a stable affiliation, the Walleye were able to take home the Brabham Cup for top regular season points. They had the Rookie of the Year in Tyler Barnes and turned the horrid season from last year around to a Conference Finals this year– with even bigger things for next season.
For the Stingrays, it is their fourth Bud Gingher Memorial Trophy for Eastern Conference champions and it lines them up for a shot at their fourth Kelly Cup and first since 2009. For a team that had a storybook year during the 23-game winning streak, having the MVP in Jeff Jakaitis, and plenty of momentum– their toughest task in facing the Allen Americans and having to deal with the first three games on the road could prove to be a mental feat to get over– as well as a physical one.
Regardless of that, this Game 7 was tabbed as an instant classic by many and you’ll find it hard pressed to find anyone who thinks differently.