The South Divison race is heating up as the top four teams are separated by five points, and the gap between second and fourth is just two points and is proving to be the division to watch in the ECHL. South Carolina is the only team in the division that has clinched the playoffs, and that’s due to them being the top team on the PP at 24.7%, Just .1% more than the Toledo Walleye. Unlike the other three divisions, there is no clear favorite in the South Division.
South Carolina Stingrays (First Place, 40-21-4-1, 85 Points)
Since their founding, the South Carolina Stingrays have appeared in the Kelly Cup Playoffs 27 times. As one of the most successful ECHL teams in the league, with the most playoff appearances by any team as well as taking a trip to the Kelly Cup Finals six different times, taking home the Kelly Cup during three of those trips, the Stingrays have earned their way into history books.
This season, the Rays have steadily been a force in the South, capturing 40 wins and a .644-win percentage, consistently having one of the highest winning percentages in the division, even with a slump coming out of the new year, where they lost seven out of their 13 games in January. In February, the Rays took another hit, losing their leading goal scorer, Carter Turnbull, to HKM Zloven, a club in the Slovak Extraliga league overseas. The team lost Jonny Evans to a long-term hand injury the same month. Before the injury, Evans had posted nine goals and 21 assists. Both UCONN graduates’ presence and chemistry within the Stingray’s lineup have been missed on the ice but allowed other players a chance to step up. The Rays started the heat up in March, winning eight of their 13 games, which included Lawton Courtnall’s hat trick against the Atlanta Gladiators and Anthony Del Gaizo’s seven-game point streak where he tallied 11 points.
Rookie Bear Hughes continues to turn heads, leading the team in goals, and is sitting second in assists and points. The ECHL All-Star consistently shows His playmaker mentality continues to show, as he can find the net and gain points within games no matter what line he is on. Head Coach Brenden Kotyk describes Hughes as “a professional who has a very bright future in professional hockey.” Tyler Wall and Clay Steveson have been a power duo between the pipes this season, earning ECHL Goaltender of the Week accolades. Both goaltenders have 18 wins on the year, with Clay sitting at .918 and Wall at .906 save percentage; this duo is a force to be reckoned with.
The Stingrays are the first to clinch a playoff spot, with their win against the Walleyes during the three-game road trip to the Midwest this past weekend. The Rays wrap up their road trip and will finish up their season facing off against division opponents to cap off the regular season.
Jacksonville Icemen (2nd Place, 39-22-3-1, 82 Points)
Going into April, the Icemen sat third in a competitive division with a minimal margin for error. With two wins over Orlando on consecutive nights and some key divisional opponents seeing losses, the Icemen moved into second place in the ECHL’s South Division. The team seeks to make the first back-to-back playoff appearance in organization history. To do it, the Icemen must close out the last few games of the season against opponents who also find themselves in the playoff hunt.
Holding second place in the division, Jacksonville will visit the Florida Everblades Wednesday evening and play host to the Atlanta Gladiators this weekend. After March ended with a bit of playoff race madness, the Icemen can punch their ticket into the Kelly Cup Playoffs with a win over Florida on Wednesday. The Icemen have squared off with the Everblades in 10 previous matchups this season, splitting the series five wins aside. Hosting the Gladiators for the last two games of the season between the teams, the Icemen have a secondary opportunity to clinch their spot in the Kelly Cup race if they meet the 86-point threshold. The Gladiators are currently sitting fifth in the South at 75 points.
The fate of the Icemen’s final playoff race position is ultimately in their hands. Opportunities to clinch come fast in the first week of April, a month that sees the Icemen compete against the division-leading South Carolina Stingrays on the 11th, the second to last game of the year for Jacksonville. Of the seven games left remaining, the Icemen play potential playoff opponents on five different occasions. The sooner the Icemen clinch, the more breathing room they have to close out the regular season.
Greenville Swamp Rabbits (36-22-8-1, 81 Points)
What a season It’s been for the Swamp Rabbits! As their impressive performance has been displayed this season, it’s no wonder why they constantly fluctuate between their division rivals for first place in the South. Though their latest performance would suggest they don’t have what it takes to hoist the Cup—especially the three straight losses last week against the Everblades and Ghost Pirates—many would beg to differ; this team has a lot under their belt. With the current player roster and Coaching staff, this team is different compared to last season’s Swamp Rabbits. A few players stand out for this Greenville team: Defenseman Max Martin and Forward Alex Ierullo. For the d-man, Max Martin has been on fire these last few weeks, scoring at least once every game or putting up a point; he’s also been helping this team a lot with scoring in so many periods during the game where they were desperate to score. Take the game last week against the Everblades at Greenville, the final minute of regulation with the game 1-0 Florida, the team used the extra attacker by pulling tendy Hrenak, and Alex Ierullo made a pass to Martin so he could one time it in. Martin’s shots on the net seem to go in when he has time to fire it with force. As of April 4, Martin’s stats are 62 GP, 14 goals, 35 assists, and 49 points. Fourteen goals is a lot for a D-man, but when you’re on the top PP line, it’s no doubt that you’ll have a bunch of goals under your name. Speaking of Ierullo, the ECHL All-Star pick for the Rabbits has been proving himself very well lately—for assists. He hasn’t been the type of player to score goals recently, but instead makes important assists to his teammates to score. His stats as of April 4 are 62 GP, with 25 goals, 53 assists, and 78 points. Need a teammate to make a pass to you to score? Well, Alex Ierullo has you covered!
As they battle out for the rest of the regular season before the playoffs, the players/coaches are hungry for the Kelly Cup, and so are the fans. It has been over 20 years since Greenville has hoisted the Kelly Cup on Greenville soil, since the old “Grrrowl” days—it’s been long overdue for the Cup. Perhaps this post-season will be different than a first-round exit like last season; maybe they’ll get to the finals; who knows. If the Rabbits put all their skill, dedication, teamwork, leadership, and commitment at work, they can surely defeat whomever team comes into their post-season.
Florida Everblades (4th Place 36-22-4-4, 80 Points)
This season’s playoffs will have many excitements, especially as it can be expected that the Florida Everblades will fight hard as the defending champs of the Kelly Cup. Currently ranked 4th in the Southern Division, there’s no doubt that the Everblades have fought very hard and will continue to do so until they claim the Cup again. They are behind the 3rd-placed Greenville Swamp Rabbits by a single point and the 1st-placed South Carolina Stingrays by 5 points. Currently leading the team in points is Joe Pendenza with 57, Jake Smith with 41, Blake Winiecki with 40, and Oliver Chau with 37. Pendenza also leads his teammates in assists with 36, followed by Oliver Chau with 24 and Cam Darcy, who has 23. Jake Smith, who has scored 22 times, has the most goals, and behind him are Pendenza and Sean Josling with 21 and 18. Florida goaltender Cam Johnson has played the most, and in his 51 games, he’s taken 25 wins, two shut-outs, and 1520 shots. In his 2964 minutes on the ice, he’s achieved a save percentage of 0.909. With 66 games played, they’ve racked up 36 wins along with 22 losses, four overtime and shoot-out losses, and a whopping 80 points.