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Connelly goes from worst to first in a lot of ways

by Lindsay Kramer
South Carolina Stingrays rookie goalie Shane Connelly has been seeing how the other half lives the past few weeks, and he enjoys the view from where he sits.

And where he sleeps.

Connelly's appreciative mood was remarkably enhanced after a luxurious overnight bus ride from South Carolina to Cincinnati last week. It was the high life, at least in Connelly's eyes, because all his limbs folded into a nice, comfy compartment instead of splaying out into the aisle. Connelly's previous team, the Johnstown Chiefs, traveled by regular bus during his time there, and that squeeze got a little tight.

"I'm pretty comfortable. I'm able to fall asleep pretty quickly," Connelly said. "This is my first time having one of those. I'm giving them a great review."

The fit of Connelly and that bus was a natural because, at 5-foot-9, he tucks right away into one of those bunks. The pairing of Connelly's talents and the Stingrays overall has been even more perfect.

Connelly, 22, is playing out a U-turn from worst to first that has both made him a lot better and the Stingrays much more dangerous.

In 14 games with Johnstown, whose 30 points are fewest in the ECHL, he struggled with a 3-7-1-1 mark, a .870 save percentage and a 4.08 goals-against. In South Carolina, which paces the league with 68 points, he's helped the team earn at least a point in nine of his 10 decisions (6-1-3), and posted a .906 save percentage and a 2.88 goals-against.

Sure, playing on a great team can make a goalie look better. But that also sets a higher standard that Connelly has so far more than met as an out-of-nowhere starter.

"I think it's just being in an environment where they are used to winning," Connelly said. "It got me going again. I didn't want to hurt this team at all. My game just elevated coming down here. I need to prove myself every game."

Connelly's background had him feeling confident about that kind of test. Playing behind Brian Elliott his first two seasons at Wisconsin, he got in 16 games total. Handed the first shot at starter's minutes as a junior, Connelly made it clear there was a new sheriff in town at the position.

He played in a combined 74 games as a junior and senior, going 19-14-4, .913, 2.51 last season.

"I thought coming in there I could push (Elliott), earn some more ice time," Connelly said. ''From day one, he took off and had an amazing last two years there. I was frustrated at times, wanting to play. But I was getting to play at a high level (in practice). I knew someone was going to come in and nip at my heels. I knew I had to push myself to be even better."

Connelly's first splash into the pro game was a lot more jarring than his smooth college ascension. He began the season with Johnstown, then got released a day after Christmas.

"I was thinking of my next move, where I was going to go," Connelly said.

The temporary answer was Hershey, where he backed up for one game before the Bears let him go. Connelly went home to Cheltenham, Pa., to ponder whether his goalie gear was about to be put into storage.

"It crossed my mind. What's the next plan for me?" Connelly said. "I didn't want to wait around forever."

He didn't have to. Over in South Carolina, coach Cail MacLean was trying to figure out where the ECHL's best team was going to find its next stopper. Braden Holtby was long gone, already called up to Hershey. And veteran security blanket Todd Ford was batting away pucks in Texas.

"It's a little bit stressful. It doesn't matter how well you play if you don't have someone who can stop the puck," MacLean said.

MacLean's scouting reports on Connelly told him the newcomer might be someone who falls into that category, though his professional numbers hardly made an open and shut case. But MacLean didn't have a lot of good options at that point. So he gave Connelly a jersey and then a Dec. 31 start against Florida, one of the ECHL's better offensive teams.

Connelly rang out the old and embraced the new by stopping 33 shots in a 4-1 Stingrays win.

"I come here, I have a jolt of energy. Maybe it's the sunshine," Connelly said.

"I was just trying to get someone between the pipes. He got tested. The confidence on both sides of the equation grew exponentially," MacLean said. "I wanted to put him in a position here where he makes the stops he's expected to make. I thought maybe given some solid play in front of him, that might give him a chance to excel. He's kept us in games and made big stops."

Connelly's combativeness, a product of his career-long pushback against skepticism about his size, has been a perfect addition to a team trying to keep its edge and repeat as Kelly Cup champion.

"You have to play with a chip on your shoulder, relish being an underdog. It's definitely a role I like," he said. "Being a Philly guy, a 'Rocky' story, you can't take a night off. You have to prove everyone wrong every night on the ice.  I'm not overly technical. I don't like to be a robot in the net. I like to have good fundamentals, but I don't want to get stuck in one mold."

"You have to play with a chip on your shoulder, relish being an underdog. It's definitely a role I like. Being a Philly guy, a 'Rocky' story, you can't take a night off. You have to prove everyone wrong every night on the ice." -- Shane Connelly

Connelly has never had the luxury of settling into anything on the ice, and that won't change in South Carolina. The veteran Ford will likely be the starter again if he returns to the Stingrays. If Connelly wants to retain his bunk on the team bus, he'll have to keep being more a driver than a passenger when he gets his chances.

"I know how to handle myself. I've been in this role," Connelly said. "It's nothing new. I'm always going to keep pushing to get more starts. I'm confident my skill level is good enough to achieve those things. Hockey doesn't last forever. I just want to leave my mark."

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