The Alaska Aces arrived at Sullivan Arena harboring hopes of making hockey history Friday night.
They left the joint stomaching heartache, enduring painful thoughts of the glory that eluded them, and for many of them, rubbing red eyes left puffy from the disappointment that triggered a trail of tears.
The South Carolina Stingrays, ever resilient and newly crowned rink royalty, dashed the home team's dream, seizing a 4-2 win in decisive Game 7 to hoist the coveted hardware that is the ECHL's Kelly Cup.
For the Aces, who were trying to become just the second team in the minor league circuit's 21-season history to fall behind 3-1 in the best-of-7 Finals and forge an epic comeback, the end came after they tantalized a standing-room-only crowd of 6,610 with a late comeback.
Matt Stefanishion's goal with just 1:45 remaining closed South Carolina's lead to 3-2, and the Aces enjoyed a power play in the last minute. And with goaltender Jean-Philippe Lamoureux on the bench in favor of an extra attacker, the Aces owned a 6-on-4 advantage in skaters.
But, in an ending that was a snapshot of a series in which six of the seven games were essentially decided by one goal, Stingrays center Pierre-Luc O'Brien bagged an empty-net goal with 24.1 seconds left to seal victory. O'Brien's shot from the left boards squeezed between the left post and the right skate of Aces defenseman Matt Shasby for one last portrait of how little separated the clubs.
"If we played 100 games, it would probably be 50-49 when we got to the 100th,'' Shasby said.
Indeed, South Carolina defenseman Patrick Wellar, who helped the Aces win the Cup in 2006, said the Finals furnished a battle of wills in which only a bounce here or there marked the difference.
After all, the Aces roared back from that 3-1 series deficit to twice escape elimination. They won 3-2 in overtime in Game 5 in South Carolina and forced Game 7 with Thursday night's dramatic come-from-behind 3-2 win at Sullivan. And South Carolina earned two of its four Finals wins in a hostile rink -- the Stingrays also won Game 1, 4-2, at Sullivan.
"We know Alaska has a lot of grit and character in that room,'' Wellar said. "They showed resilience in South Carolina, and we talked about it and said, 'We're not giving ourselves enough credit -- we have enough character, and we're resilient too.' "
For proof, the Stingrays offered their remarkable journey to the championship. They trailed Charlotte 2-0 in the first round and 2-0 after one period of Game 3 before rebounding to win four straight games. They knocked off regular-season champion Florida in the six games in the second round. And they swept defending Cup winner Cincinnati in the American Conference Finals.
"We trust our system, we trust our teammates and we're confident in our hard work,'' said South Carolina rookie winger Maxime Lacroix, who opened the scoring in Game 7 and bagged six Finals goals among his league-leading 13 in the postseason. "It was a very nice series, a great battle.
South Carolina coach Jared Bednar becomes the first man to have his name engraved on the Kelly Cup three times - he was a player for the Stingrays when they won the Cup in 2001 and 1997. The Stingrays are the second team to win three league titles - the Hampton Roads Admirals won two Riley Cups before the hardware was renamed the Kelly Cup, and they also won one Kelly Cup.
The Stingrays became just the third club in league history to beat the regular-season champion and defending champion on their way to winning the Cup. And they are the fourth club in league history to knock off the No. 1 (Florida) and No. 2 (Alaska) regular-season teams on the way to the title.
Meanwhile, the Aces felt the sting of defeat. Winger Lance Galbraith never choked down such disappointment until Friday night. He won Kelly Cups with Aces captain Scott Burt in 2007 and 2004, when they skated for the Idaho Steelheads. And in major junior, he won a Memorial Cup and an Ontario Hockey League title.
"It's a tough one to swallow,'' said Aces winger Lance Galbraith, whose second-period goal cut South Carolina's lead to 2-1. "First time for me being in the Finals and losing at any level.
"I wouldn't wish it on anyone. It's going to be a long summer.''
For Shasby, who helped the Aces to the Cup in 2006, memories of the joy he felt then only deepened his pain Friday night.
"I think it's worse knowing what the feeling is when you do win it,'' he said. "I thought we were going to do it.''
Burt, standing in the hallway outside the Aces dressing room, still in full gear 30 minutes after the game and exchanging hugs and consoling words with teammates, said he was proud of his club.
"It's obviously hard to take right now,'' Burt said. "For the young guys, I told them to learn from this and never let it happen again.''
In a repeat of Game 6, the Stingrays again raced to a 2-0 lead. This time, the cushion came courtesy of Lacroix's strike from the right wing late in the first period and Rob Ricci's first pro goal, which came early in the second period.
The Aces answered with Galbraith's brilliant effort midway though the second period to cut the lead to 2-1. He took a pass from Colin Hemingway on left wing, avoided an attempted kill shot from South Carolina captain Brad Farynuk, eluded Brad Scherer's attempt to lift his stick and swept a low shot past James Reimer and inside the right post.
"I got my head up at the last second - (Farynuk's) been trying to run me, eliminate me, all series,'' Galbraith said. "I don't know how I pulled that move off.
"It doesn't mean anything now. It's a loss, and a lost series.''
While Reimer, who stopped 26 shots and was named MVP of the playoffs, held the Aces in check, Trent Campbell provided the game-winning goal midway through the third period.
After O'Brien carried the puck into Alaska's zone on left wing and was chopped down by Stefanishion, Campbell arrived to whistle a bullet past Lamoureux (19 saves) for a 3-1 lead.
Still, Stefanishion's strike made the cowbell-ringing crowd erupt in anticipation of another late comeback, which has been a characteristic of the Aces all season.
"Nobody quit until the buzzer,'' Stefanishion said.
O'Brien, though, silenced the masses with his empty netter. The Aces were left to skate through the somber side of the traditional post-series handshake line, with Burt the first player at center-ice to offer congratulations to the Stingrays.
"There's no quit in our dressing room'' Burt said. "We battled hard all year, and (Friday) we didn't get the bounce we needed.
"You roll the dice in Game 7, and unfortunately we didn't get the bounce.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
South Carolina 1 1 2 -- 4
Aces 0 1 1 -- 2
First Period - 1, South Carolina, Lacroix 13 (Johnson, Morin), 18:45. Penalties - Wellar, South Carolina (interference), :56; Kana, Aces (interference), 9:08; Kroll, South Carolina (holding), 14:13; Keith, Aces (slashing), 19:22.
Second Period - 2, South Carolina, Ricci 1 (Farynuk, Scherer), 2:29; 3, Aces, Galbraith 10 (C. Hemingway, Martin), 10:04. Penalties - Kiser, South Carolina (interference), 3:58; O'Brien, South Carolina (hooking), 13:13.
Third Period - 4, South Carolina, Campbell 6 (O'Brien, Farynuk), 11:06; 5, Aces, Stefanishion 6 (Shasby, Soares), 18:15; 6, South Carolina, O'Brien 6, 19:35 (sh-en). Penalties - Burt, Aces (goaltender interference), 3:13; Farynuk, South Carolina (delay of game-puck over glass), 12:15; Wellar, South Carolina (slashing), 18:48.
Shots on goal - South Carolina 5-12-6--23. Aces 8-9-11--28.
Power-play Opportunities - South Carolina 0 of 3; Aces 0 of 6.
Goalies - South Carolina, Reimer, 4-3 (28 shots-26 saves). Aces, Lamoureux, 15-6 (22-19).
A - 6,610 (6,410). T - 2:17.
Referee - Francis Charron. Linesmen - Scott Sivulich, Steve Glines.