Game 1Gwinnett vs. South CarolinaWhen: Tonight, 7 p.m.Where: North Charleston ColiseumSeason series: South Carolina won, 9-6-0.Tickets: 744-2248.

A month ago, Shea Walters, Michael Dorr, Andrew Cherniwchan, Patrick Cullen, Damon Kipp and Nielsson Arcibal were worried about studying for exams and where they might be going on spring break.

The opportunity to play professional hockey and be involved in a Kelly Cup playoff run were not even in the realm of possibility back in late February or early March.

“I didn’t know what to think coming down here,” said Arcibal, who played at American International College. “I thought I’d come down here, get in a couple of games, and hopefully prove to the coaches that I could play in the ECHL.”

The seventh-seeded Stingrays open their best-of-five ECHL Eastern Conference quarterfinal series tonight against the No. 2 seed Gwinnett Gladiators at the North Charleston Coliseum.

In the past, the Stingrays have signed one or two college players during the month of March to add some depth to the roster going into the postseason. With few exceptions, these college players rarely had an impact during the playoffs. One of the few exceptions was Nikita Kashirsky, who recording 18 points in 21 playoff games in the Stingrays run to a Kelly Cup title in 2009.

“You bring in college kids at the end of the season mainly to get a look at them and get them some experience at the pro level,” Carbery said. “It’s a recruiting tool as well. You expose them to your systems, the organization and the city and hopefully you sign them for the following year. You don’t get a Nikita Kashirsky very often, a guy that can come in and play a big role on a championship-caliber team.”

This spring has been a little different for Carbery and the Stingrays. As the injuries, call-ups and suspensions began to mount late in the season, Carbery knew that he would have to rely on incoming college players during the postseason. The Stingrays have had season-ending injuries to David de Kastorzza, Mike Hamilton and Philipp Grubauer. Leading scorer Trent Campbell was suspended indefinitely from the team, while Matt Pope, Sean Dolan and Billy Ryan remain in the American Hockey League.

“That’s a pretty big chunk of our lineup, but that’s life in the ECHL,” Carbery said.

It’s why the Stingrays went through an extensive vetting process when they were bringing in college players this year. Stingrays assistant coach J.B. Bittner spearheaded the effort to bring in quality college players, who would be ready to contribute immediately.

“We didn’t have the luxury to bring in guys just to get a look at them,” Carbery said. “We needed guys to come in and hit the ground running at the pro level. That was a our sales pitch.”

Walters, who played Bemidji State University, was eager to come down to the Lowcountry.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Walters, who has one goal and five assists in eight games. “I wanted to get into the lineup and contribute and help these guys get into the playoffs and make a run at a championship.”

There’s little doubt that the addition of six college players propelled the Stingrays into the postseason. Going into this past weekend, the Stingrays needed to beat Greenville twice to secure a spot in the postseason for an ECHL-record 18th time. Walters, Arcibal and Dorr each scored in Saturday night’s playoff clinching 5-2 victory over the Road Warriors.

“I’ve been really impressed with their work ethic and attitude since they’ve gotten here,” Carbery said. “I’m not sure we would still be playing right now had it not been for them coming in and buying into what we’re trying to do.”