The ECHL is home to many teams in North America, but rarely do you see so many jump up and down to confirm their playoff clinch. You mainly see the big teams show off their teams’ skills and professional success, and will always have that displayed, not fluctuating. However, one team of the bunch in all divisions stands out: The Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Now the Swamp Rabbits are located in Greenville, South Carolina, and are part of the South Division of the league, which is the most competitive division. So many competitive teams in that division alone make teams like the Orlando Solar Bears and Savannah Ghost Pirates have difficulty clinching a playoff spot without fighting extremely hard against their rivals. Despite their rankings in the division/conference during the regular season, the Swamp Rabbits are a highly competitive team that doesn’t shy away from a large playoff spot.
After attending many games where the team’s guys battle against their rivals, like the Florida Everblades, South Carolina Stingrays, and Jacksonville Icemen, I know they can beat them at home or on the road. However, like any team, professional or semi-professional, to beat your team rivals with higher stats than yours, you and your teammates have to work together and put out everything to win. Currently, the Rabbits of the 27 of February rank in 9th place in the league and 4th in the South. They are neck and neck with their neighbor/state rivals, the Stingrays—it’s been that way for most of the time this season. So it’s uncertain which team tops the other, as both are immensely competitive.
While observing the Rabbits play three home games in one week (February 15, 17 & 19), I saw them fight hard to secure wins, never ceasing to back down from being physical and scoring goals. However, the hard-fought battle for the game on Wednesday against the Utah Grizzlies at home, for example, would end with a loss, as they trailed by only one goal, 4-3. During the 3rd period of the game against Utah, the Rabbits were physical, showed a lot of physicality, and were not afraid to get inside the Grizzlies’ goal crease. But that did not advance them in tying the game for overtime (which is very common for them).
The first period was scoreless, regardless of many close goal chances. The second is when the Grizzlies woke up and scored two goals at 1:48 and 17:31 that slid past Rabbits back-up goalie David Hrenak, with the Rabbits falling shy of just one goal to tie, as the single goal was scored by #7 Tanner Eberle. Eberle, McKechney, and Freeman scored the goals for the Rabbits. It’s worth mentioning that Utah got multiple power plays to work with during the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd periods, while the Rabbits only had one in total during the 3rd period.
Although the loss against the Grizzlies was unfortunate, the Rabbits were ready to rest up and recoup for the second of the third home games against the Jacksonville Icemen (the best team in South) on Friday, the 17 of February. The game against the Icemen was a special event at Bon Secours Wellness Arena, “Stick It To Cancer Night,” which allowed players and fans to honor those who have either passed away, recovered, or currently battling through the terrible disease. It was a good Friday night for hockey, with more than 5000 in attendance. The crowd was loud and hyping up the Rabbits. And that paid off, as forward #10 Max Martin scored at 1:51 of the first period, with the team having a one-goal lead over the Icemen in the first period (1-0).
However, that one-goal lead would end, as Jacksonville would score to make it a tie game at 9:10. And heading into the 2nd at a tied game, the Icemen would open up cutting at 5:10, breaking the tie. The Rabbits noted this, upping the forecheck and shots on goal in Jacksonville’s zone. But, the defense and goaltending for Jacksonville were on par, and Greenville could not score to tie the game or gain a lead. Though Jacksonville would increase their 2nd period, lead to two goals at 19:19 by #11 Lynch, as Rabbits star goalie Ryan Bednard was unable to make a complete save.
Jacksonville was given two power plays during the 2nd and scored during the first, advancing their lead even further. Though Greenville was given two, as well, but couldn’t convert onto it, with Jacksonville’s defense being on par at exceptional levels that the Rabbits couldn’t bypass. The Icemen scored twice in the 2nd and 3rd periods, and the Rabbits were scoreless. Unable to advance in scoring after the 1st period, the game ended at 5-1 Jacksonville; the Rabbits were out of gas at the end of regulation and seemed defeated with two losses in a row on home ice.
Despite those losses at home, Greenville hoped to strike back harder and return for their last third home game against the Savannah Ghost Pirates at Enmarket Arena with a win. However, the enthusiasm and hunger for a win wouldn’t budge, as Savannah would score two times in the 1st, with the Rabbits only scoring twice in the 3rd period over 40 seconds apart in the first minute by #9 Brett Kemp and #21 Bobby Russell. The 3rd-period first-minute scoring buzz would lose energy, as the Ghost Pirates would score twice and get two power plays. With that, Savannah would take the win at home 4-2.
Returning home at 4 am from the game against Savannah, the Rabbits would return to Bon Secours the following Sunday, a back-to-back game that the team needed a win. That game, by far, was really intense for a game against the Ghost Pirates. The physicality, the forecheck, the shots on goal, and the energy were huge, and it was clear that the Rabbits wanted the win, putting up over 54 shots on Ghost Pirates goalie Papiriny. With that many shots on goal, it’s no wonder the Rabbits would win, but in overtime… A turnover during the third period would result in Savannah tying the game, as David Hrenak could not stop the breakaway goal. It’s worth mentioning about Hrenak that he played the game before in Savannah because star goalie Ryan Bednard was called up to AHL Vancouver for a PTOC. The win at home was badly needed, and it would be one of 3 in a week.
The team returned for another home game on Wednesday, the 22 of February, against the Worcester Railers and would win it in regulation 3-1. It had seemed that the team’s perseverance and skill would be back on track against Worcester, despite David Hrenak taking on a new role as temporary star goalie.
After Wednesday’s game against the Railers, the Rabbits packed their bags and headed on the road to the big, sunny city of Orlando, Florida, for two games. The first game against the Solar Bears at Amway Center was on Friday, the 24 of February, and it was full of great goals, physicality, and saves by both tendies. In regulation, the Rabbits would secure another dub, but this time, at the big arena in Orlando, 4-3, with the goals scored by Max Martin, two from Brett Kemp, and Alex Ierullo. Winning on the road is always a great experience, especially against the Solar Bears. With the tremendous win in Orlando, the Rabbits would lose to the Solar Bears during their rematch on the following Sunday, 5-4, as the Bears would go for blood and get revenge for their previous loss.
Approaching the upcoming games against the Admirals in Norfolk this coming Friday/Saturday of March 3rd-4th, the Swamp Rabbits have much to work on, including up the offense and defense. Many aspects of this team need tweaking, but Head Coach Andrew Lord and Assistant Head Coach Mason Batista have, without a doubt, plans to address them during practice to help improve the team’s performance. It’s clear that this team is heading to the playoffs, regardless of the current wins/losses ratio and performance…
The future of regulation and playoff stats is uncertain for the Swamp Rabbits, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be on top or below. But, judging by their skills and capabilities, the playoffs will, without a doubt, be more successful than last season, with the eyes for the Kelly Cup clinch at the full scope. For many seasons of the Rabbits’ franchise life, most of them have seen playoff activity. However, the Kelly Cup hasn’t been raised on Greenville soil in over two decades. Perhaps that’ll change… But only time will tell for sure.