Colorado Eagles top South Carolina Stingrays in 2OT in Game 1 of ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals | MyWindsorNow.com

Colorado Eagles top South Carolina Stingrays in 2OT in Game 1 of ECHL’s Kelly Cup Finals

Tommy Wood
twood@greeleytribune.com

LOVELAND —The 5,289 fans who packed the Budweiser Event Center on Friday night waited 10 years for their Colorado Eagles to reach this point, game one of the ECHL's Kelly Cup Finals, but had the Eagles waited two and a half seconds longer to conjure a miracle, their devoted would have gone home disappointed.

Instead, Matt Garbowsky somehow slid the puck past South Carolina Stingrays goalie Parker Milner with 2.5 seconds left in the third period to tie the game, then Matt Register's slap shot in double overtime gave the Eagles an improbable 3-2 win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Garbowsky also scored Colorado's first goal; Scott Tanski and Scott McParland scored for South Carolina. Milner was brilliant most of the night, making 43 saves under a withering Eagles' assault, and his counterpart, Colorado's Lukas Hafner, made 32 saves of his own.

"I just like how our guys battled, didn't get frustrated when we didn't score," said Aaron Schneekloth, the Eagles' first-year head coach. "They didn't give up and they didn't think the game was over."

Schneekloth spent Colorado's long wait for game one — the Eagles won their conference final in five games while South Carolina's went seven — bouncing between excitement and anxiety, and the entire arena ran that emotional gamut pregame, the buzz building until the rink was bathed in yellow and crimson spotlights, until an air-raid siren welcomed the players to the ice and whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

The Eagles lived in South Carolina's zone for much of the first period. Colorado had four scoring chances in the game's first minute and a half. It subjected Stingrays goalie Parker Milner to a blistering volley of shots and a seemingly endless series of rushes, outshooting South Carolina 16-7 in the period on its way to a 46-34 shot advantage for the game.

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The Stingrays' best chances came off of Eagles' turnovers; Colorado gave it away several times in the neutral zone and its defensive zone and was lucky none of those turned into goals. Even the Eagles' weak penalty kill, tested three times in the first frame, emerged without a blemish.

Colorado broke through 16:11 into the game when Garbowsky got his own rebound just inches outside the crease and put it home past Stingrays goalie Parker Milner's pad.

"I got the puck out of the corner and right away I thought short-side high," Garbowsky said. "The goalie read me, but fortunately I had the bottom left open right after that so I just slammed it home."

The Eagles dominated possession in the second period like they did in the first, but their poor puck security finally cost them.

South Carolina made a rush just as a Colorado power play expired.

Lukas Hafner stoned it, but the Eagles committed multiple turnovers trying to clear the puck and the Stingrays rotated the puck until Tanski, wide open in the slot, fired one over Hafner's right shoulder to tie the game at 1.

"We just gotta make some stronger plays, gotta be stronger on walls," Register said of Colorado's puck security. "At the end of the day it comes down to details."

As the third period progressed, South Carolina gradually asserted itself until, with about five minutes left in regulation, it was in complete control. The Stingrays outshot Colorado 8-7 in the frame, but even that is deceiving; most of the Eagles' shots came as they frantically tried to equalize in the final seconds.

Colorado's Cam Maclise took an interference minor 15:18 into the third, and during the ensuing power play South Carolina set up an attack in the Eagles' zone that paid off moments after the penalty expired.

Scott McParland snuck backdoor and buried a feed from Derek Arnold to put the Stingrays up 2-1 with less than four minutes left in the third period, stunning the raucous crowd to silence.

The Eagles pulled Hafner with 1:30 left and fired on net with abandon. Their slap shots thudded wide and South Carolina stayed tight in front of the goal to prevent anything from sneaking through. The Stingrays almost — almost — did it.

Colorado kept its attack up as the clock ticked inside 30 seconds, 15 seconds, 10 seconds. Register blindly slid one toward the net that somewhere in a mass of bodies deflected off of Garbowsky and slid past Milner' with 2.5 seconds left.

"I don't know (how it went in)," Register said. "Honestly, at the end of the day it really doesn't matter."

Said Garbowsky: "It was just a mad scramble. I don't know if it was five-hole or what."

The elated Eagles ate Clif Bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches between the third period and overtime to try to refuel. Mostly, though, teams looked exhausted throughout the first overtime. Colorado had a chance with a four-on-two it couldn't finish, and South Carolina had a three-on-one rush with five seconds left that was whistled offside; those were the best chances in the frame.

The Eagles earned their seventh power play of the game halfway through the second overtime. Their previous six brought chances but no conversions against the Stingrays' 87.8 percent penalty kill.

"They're disciplined in the zone," Register said of what makes South Carolina's special teams so hard to score on. "They're not running around, not chasing. They're getting into areas and blocking shots."

This power play didn't even last 30 seconds. Register — the highest-scoring defenseman in these ECHL playoffs — took a pass from Jake Marto — the second-highest scoring — at the blue line, hesitated a moment and blasted a slap shot past Milner's shoulder.

Game over.

"Playing five periods, they're not gonna be as aggressive coming up top," Register said. "I had a little time to kind of move one way or another .It wasn't the hardest shot I put on net, but it found a way through."

While the Eagles mobbed Register at the blue line, South Carolina defensean Wade Epp, who was in the game for all of Colorado's goals, was the last Stingray on the ice. He smashed his stick on the crossbar of the goal, then left it on the ice, splintered and broken, like the victory South Carolina was 2.5 seconds from securing. It may as well have been 10 years.

Colorado Eagles 3, South Carolina Stingrays 2, 2 OT

SC 0 1 1 (0) (0) — 2

COL 1 0 1 (0) (1) — 3

1st Period — COL, Matt Garbowsky (Julien Nantel, Teigan Zahn) 16:11

2nd Period — SC, Scott Tanski (Marcus Perrier, Max Nicastro) 10:14

3rd Period — SC, Scott McParland (Derek Arnold, Olivier Archambault) 17:27; COL, Garbowsky (Matt Register, Casey Pierro-Zabotel) (PP) 19:58

1st OT — No scoring

2nd OT — COL, Register (Jake Marto) 10:52

Shots — SC 34, COL 46.

Saves — SC (Parker Milner) 43, COL (Lukas Hafner) 32.

Power plays — SC 0/7, COL 1/7

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