RAYS ONE WIN AWAY FROM CONFERENCE FINAL
05/04/2009 - JohnWaltonHockey.com Joe Shetrom, South Carolina Stingrays The South Carolina Stingrays begin the first full week of May with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven South Division Finals against the Florida Everblades, after taking two of three this past weekend on home ice. With the series shifting to the Lowcountry, the Stingrays looked to take their second lead of the best of seven in Friday's Game 3. Travis Morin sat out for the second straight game with a wrist injury, but the Rays welcomed back defenseman Sasha Pokulok, who missed the last five games, to the lineup. The latter half of the first period yielded two scores from SC, with Keith Johnson (power play) and Nikita Kashirsky collecting goals 66 seconds apart to stake the home team with a 2-0 advantage. Midway through the second, Ross Carlson bagged the first of two markers on the evening, stuffing home a loose puck in the crease on a power play opportunity to cut South Carolina's lead in half. Zach Tarkir, whose minor penalty led to Florida's first goal, atoned for his gaffe minutes later, one-timing a slapper from the left point at 13:42. The man advantage goal, Tarkir's third of the postseason, was assisted by Pierre-Luc O'Brien and Trent Campbell, who extended his point streak to five games. Jeff Corey increased the Stingrays' lead to three in the 3rd period, taking the puck from his own blueline and bypassing five Everblades skaters before going backhand on Florida goaltender David Leggio. But don't count out the Blades. In an eerie similarity to Game 2, which Florida led 4-1 before SC tallied two goals late in the 3rd to make it interesting, the Everblades started a comeback at 12:23, with Mathieu Roy netting a power play marker to make it 4-2. Then, with Leggio pulled in favor of a sixth attacker, Carlson scored at 19:28 to trim the lead to just one goal. The Stingrays' defense hung on to escape with a 4-3 win and a 2 games to 1 advantage in the series. James Reimer earned his first pro playoff win, turning aside 26 of 29 shots while Leggio stopped only 16 of 20. Aiming to take a commanding three-games-to-one lead in the series, South Carolina faced a Florida club determined to not only even the score but to take the series back to Estero for at least a Game 6. The Blades took the first step in making that a reality, scoring the initial goal for the first time in the series on Milan Gajic's even strength tally at 8:07 of the first period. With Ross Carlson in the box for Florida, Jeff Corey knotted the contest, depositing his fourth of the playoffs at 17:29. Carlson made up for his transgression by giving the Everblades their second lead of the night, beating Stingrays goaltender James Reimer at 13:34 of the second. Not to be outdone, Corey answered just over a minute later, sending a shot past David Leggio to square the contest at 2-2. South Carolina thought they had taken a 3-2 advantage with 2:01 remaining in the second stanza, but Brad Farynuk's shot from the left side was deemed a "no goal" by referee Geno Binda. It wasn't until the ninety-second minute of play – over half way through the second overtime – that a victor was decided, when Mark Lee scored the game-winner for Florida following a Nikita Kashirsky delay of game call. Leggio, who has started all nine postseason games for the 'Blades, claimed victory with a 33-save performance while his counterpart, Reimer, in his first start since Game 2 of the first round against Charlotte, thwarted 40 of 43. Closing out the weekend's three-in-three at the North Charleston Coliseum, the Rays looked to bounce back after Saturday's double OT loss and bus out to South Florida with a 3-2 series advantage. But after the first half of Sunday's Game 5, South Carolina found themselves stuck in a 3-0 hole on first period goals from veterans Ernie Hartlieb and Peter Metcalf as well as a second period marker from ECHL MVP Kevin Baker. The task was daunting, but the Stingrays pulled off the incomparable, rallying for four unanswered goals to drop Florida 4-3 in one of the most memorable comebacks in team history. Matt Scherer ignited SC's offense two minutes after the Blades went up 3-0, tipping a Johann Kroll shot into the net at 12:22 for his team-best sixth playoff goal. Two minutes later and it was 3-2, with Michael Dubuc and Sasha Pokulok leading an odd-man rush before the first-year pro notched his first marker since March 1. The pendulum of momentum continued to swing in the Rays' favor during the third, with Maxime Lacroix cashing in on a rebound at 16:46 to knot the affair at 3-3. And then came the dramatics. After referee Francis Charron whistled Florida for a too many men on the ice penalty with less than a minute left in regulation, Nikita Kashirsky, whose delay of game infraction led to the Blades' overtime victory the night prior, potted the game-winner at 19:24, wristing home the game-winner from a shot in the slot. Jonathan Boutin, making his first start since Game 2, made some big stops down the stretch to garner his sixth win of the playoffs. David Leggio, the workhorse goaltender who played three games in less than 72 hours, stopped 20 of 24 for Florida, who must win out in order to move on. Game 6 is set for Tuesday night at Germain Arena, with Game 7, if necessary, scheduled for Wednesday evening. The winner will move on to face the Cincinnati Cyclones, who swept the Elmira Jackals for the North Division crown, in the American Conference Finals."
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