Late tally sends Stingrays past punchless Titans

The first full night of games following mass call-ups due to the end of the NHL lockout have passed in the ECHL, and the Trenton Titans opened up a two-game home series on Friday night playing like they were trying to figure out just how to deal with the sudden upheaval.

So were the South Carolina Stingrays (17-18-4), but the visitors managed to come up two goals better in a 3-1 decision in New Jersey’s capital.

Ryan Zapolski, who came into the contest riding a league-best 1.69 goals-against average, stopped 19-of-20 shots for the victorious visitors, and the one he did give up wasn’t close to being his fault.

Ryan Hayes, a former Titan, provided the key barb in the contest, scoring off a rebound which resulted from a 3-on-1 break with 4 1/2 minutes left in regulation. Matt Beca opened the scoring in the second period and Andrew Sackrison managed to slip an empty-netter home before the final buzzer.

Andy Bohmbach provided the lone offense for the hosts (14-16-5), who dropped their sixth straight game and fifth in regulation (0-5-1) on a night when it was a toss-up whether the ice or the overall play between the two clubs was poorer.

Nonetheless, Trenton head coach Vince Williams played it cool when asked if the sudden flux of transactions had anything to do with this latest defeat.

“You went from one wave of bringing one group in to a wave of eighteen newer guys and then you go to the flip-flop before Christmas and then another flip-flop after Christmas and then you go through this, so essentially it’s four major overhauls. I can’t say I’ve gone through this. I think we’ve probably been hit harder than anybody, and we could still lose 2-3 more guys by next week too.”

Niko Hovinen took the loss, charged with two goals on 20 shots, but was hardly to blame with so many new faces taking the ice for the first time in new surroundings.

The Trenton netminder, who endured more quality chances than his counterpart in a game which didn’t have many on either end, was left out to dry by his defense leading to the winning score.

Scooter Vaughan side-stepped a checker on the right wing to gain entrance into the Titans’ zone, then curled towards the net in between the circles, hanging another Trenton defender out to dry with a puck fake before floating a shot on goal. Hovinen was able to make the initial stop, but fell backwards, and with no other backcheckers in sight, Hayes chipped the puck home for a 2-1 game with 4:30 on the clock.

Vaughan was sent to the box for shooting the puck over the glass with 2:11 remaining, and with Hovinen pulled a short time later, the Titans operated at 6-on-4. But the South Carolina defense held firm down the stretch, only allowing one quality chance in a goalmouth scramble.

Sackrison appeared to be dangling the disc at center ice as time ticked away, but he decided to chance it to the open cage and the shot hit the back of the net with tenths of a second to spare before the green light came on.

These clubs conclude their series on Saturday evening, then the Titans are right back in the thick of things with a Wednesday morning start against division-leading Reading.

“We’ve got to do a better job getting inside (tomorrow) and getting a little more traffic in front of Zapolski,’ Williams offered. “He’s a good goalie, we saw it the last time we were down there and obviously the numbers speak for themselves.”

With both rosters decimated due to the trickle-up effect of NHL training camps, a scoreless first period appeared to be the product of both sides dealing with the mass confusion of a roster turnover.

Trenton gained a pair of power-play chances in the opening 6:13 but failed to put together an organized attack, with the Stingrays posting the best scoring chances while shorthanded.

On the following shift after the Titans failed to make headway during their third power play of the evening — a Phil Mangan slashing minor late in the second period — South Carolina broke up ice with an odd-man rush. Mangan eventually fed ahead to Beca, who sped up the right side and stuck a forehander inside the far pipe as Hovinen closed off the near post for a 1-0 game at 14:15.

That could have easily been the game-winner as the ice turned to a quagmire and the visitors appearing to win the game of defensive attrition.

“The ice wasn’t good at all, it was terrible,” Williams lamented. ”It was bad, it was slow, the puck was sticking, people’s skates just stopping. But it was bad for everybody. It’s more (a matter) of an execution, cleaner breakouts and being able to go more north-south. But we don’t help ourselves by circling too much and vacating as well.”

But a turnover deep inside the Stingrays zone while they were shorthanded fell into the lap of Bohmbach, and the sure-handed captain needed a second to gather himself and beat Zapolski cleanly from the slot with 8:53 left in regulation.

“We turned it over in their end and I was up high (forechecking in between the circles) and I read that the D was going to go back to his partner, and I stepped in, read it, picked it off and kind of had an empty net.  I just saw it and read it and jumped on the opportunity,” Bohmback explained.

Any good feeling that the losing streak might be broken with a final push lasted just 5:23 of game time.

Notes: South Carolina has beaten Trenton in all three meetings this season, but Friday’s win was its first in regulation after a 3-2 OT win on December 7 and a 6-5 shootout decision on December 8…The Stingrays won their second road contest in the last eight tries…Trenton finished 1-for-6 with the man advantage, while SC ended up empty on its two tries…The Titans lost Tyler Hostetter, Matt Mangene, Andrew Johnston and Shane Harper to the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League, defenseman Ryan Grimshaw to Toronto and defenseman Eric Baier to Boston, while gaining defensemen Gentry Zollars, Derrick Pallis and Andrew Schmit, forward Corey Tamblyn and received Brad Peltz on loan from Binghamton of the AHL…Attendance was 3,376.