We’re still a month away from the start of the ECHL playoff season, but already there is anticipation in the air inside Cross Insurance Arena.

Following an entertaining – if ultimately unsuccessful – outing against the team with the best record in the league, Maine Mariners Coach Riley Armstrong had this to say about the South Carolina Stingrays:

“I would definitely love to play a seven-game series against them.”

After rallying four times to tie the score, the Mariners finally went down in defeat 6-4 Sunday afternoon before a crowd of 3,669.

In 30 road games this season, the Stingrays have lost in regulation only twice, so the final result was not a surprise. South Carolina’s overall record is 43-11-3-1.

Even so, the Mariners (32-24-2-1) remained competitive throughout. They converted 2 of 3 power plays. Michael McNicholas, Terrence Wallin, Dillan Fox and Andrew Sturtz each scored a goal that tied the score. Jeff Taylor notched three assists and Alex Kile two.

“If that’s the best team in the league, then I think we can make a serious run in the playoffs if we have the right personnel,” Wallin said. “With the type of game we just played, it’s honestly an exciting prospect that we can make a run, because we know that we can beat a team like that.”

With Sean Day, Scott Savage and Marc-Olivier Crevier-Morin all out with a variety of injuries, the Mariners suited up only five defensemen and Armstrong again asked forward Ryan Ferrill to bolster the blue line.

“He’s one of our more responsible forwards to begin with and he comes back and is taking on a different role,” said team captain Zach Tolkinen. “Hats off to him. He’s done a heck of a job for a guy who hasn’t played D since he was probably a Pee Wee.”

Half of South Carolina’s goals Sunday came on special teams, with two on the power play and one short-handed. Goaltender Connor LaCouvee made 25 saves as the Stingrays held a slight edge in shots, 31-30.

Steve Whitney and goaltender Parker Milner, who helped Boston College win a national title in 2012, led the Stingrays. Whitney opened the scoring late in the first and added the clincher late in the second to make it 5-4.

“There’s some things here that we need to fix,” Tolkinen said. “Three or four of those goals were gifts to them, because we were not doing a great job defensively, not being responsible. If we clean up those little things, then I like the way our team looks.”

A little over a month remains in the regular season and the Mariners sit in third place in the ECHL North, four points above Brampton for the fourth and final playoff spot and seven behind second-place Reading, which trails first-place Newfoundland by three.

Adirondack is the only divisional foe with a realistic chance of knocking out one of the top four, but the Thunder remain 10 points behind Maine. Of course, last season the Mariners held third place into mid-March before a five-game losing streak dropped them to fifth.

“That’s something we talk about,” Tolkinen said. “We have a lot of guys who have been in that spot before.”

Tolkinen noted the team’s 9-4-1-0 record in a busy February, which included five victories in seven road games.

“The boys have been pretty resilient,” he said. “We’ve been playing pretty good hockey lately. I think we’re trending in the right direction.”

NOTES: There was a moment of silence before the game in honor of Captain Joel Barnes, the firefighter from Berwick who died in the line of duty one year ago. During the second intermission, Mike Barnes – Joel’s father – presented the first Captain Joel Barnes Community Service Award to Matt St. Pierre, a firefighter from Hampden. … Four of the next five games are at home, and the next two that aren’t are scheduled for Worcester, so the Mariners won’t have to leave New England until a March 22 date in Pennsylvania against Reading.

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