ORLANDO, FL – Well, the Solar Bears did it. They managed to survive the brutal month of January, facing series against three division-leading teams—the Manchester Monarchs (North), the Florida Everblades (South), and the Allen Americans (Mountain). The only non-division leaders faced by Orlando were the rock solid Colorado Eagles and Alaska Aces, who are currently ranked second and fourth respectively in the tough Mountain Division.
The team hit some bumps on the way, and ended up 4-5-1-1 for the month. That record may not seem notable, and it did hurt the Solar Bears, who now find themselves in a dogfight with the South Carolina teams for second place in the South Division. But given the opponents, Orlando is counting its blessings. Things could easily have turned out worse.
While Orlando fared surprisingly well in the series against the Allen Americans last Thursday and Sunday, the team’s two losses to the Florida Everblades during the previous week put them in a hole. The Greenville Swamp Rabbits (whom the team plays this coming Thursday and Saturday) have taken over the second place spot with 50 points, while the South Carolina Stingrays are now tied with Orlando for third at 49 points.
Orlando went into January firmly in second place in the South, and it would have been nice to have stayed secure in that slot. But those losses to Florida were costly ones, and the squad has struggled with continued roster adjustments due to call-ups and injuries.
If January was the month of survival, Head Coach Drake Berehowsky should see February as the month of opportunity. The Solar Bears will play games exclusively against South Division opponents. Out of 12 games, one-third will be against the newly energized Swamp Rabbits. Those four matches will all come in the next two weeks, and the claim of second place in the South will be determined by the victor of those match-ups.
One should never underestimate any opponent, but the Solar Bears should be salivating at the fact that it plays a total of seven games in February against the Atlanta Gladiators and Norfolk Admirals. The team should not get into coasting mode with either team, and it should take special note of the fact that Norfolk is coming off a banner month which included a three-game sweep of the Manchester Monarchs. But the Solar Bears are showing signs of building confidence, and they should feel like there is fruit aplenty to be harvested in February if it can continue to achieve consistency.
One thing that has been plaguing the team as of late (unfortunately) are injuries. With Nikolas Brouillard having to be carried off the ice on a stretcher on Sunday’s game, the team will be without a key two-way defenseman in the upcoming games against Greenville.
The special teams are also an item of concern. Defenseman Brendan Miller continued to show that he can snipe effectively with his power play goal in the second period on Sunday. But the Solar Bears are continuing to struggle to set things up in the offensive zone when it has the man advantage. One bright spot is the shootout. Orlando went three for three on Thursday’s game to seal a victory over Allen.
Despite the worries, there are many bright spots on the horizon, and the stars may be aligning in Orlando’s favor.
- Key defensemen Jon Jutzi and Eric Baier (the veteran captain) should return to the lineup as early as Thursday’s game. That should help to fill the gaps caused by the departures of Brouillard and Ty Stanton, who was called up to the Toronto Marlies.
- Alex Gacek, whom the Solar Bears acquired from the Stingrays, has given speed and solid offense to the squad.
- The new lines of the team are starting to crystallize. In the Sunday match against Allen, the line of Chris Crane, Darik Angeli, and Mason Marchment tallied three goals in the first period alone. A key now should be to find the right linemates to tap the offensive potential of Joe Perry.
- The team turned some heads when it acquired Chad LaRose a week ago. LaRose has over 500 NHL games under his belt, and a Stanley Cup championship to boot. He played with the Carolina Hurricanes during their historic run in 2006. LaRose still has some work ahead of him to remove the rust, but if that happens, the Solar Bears will have another big gun in their holster.
- Austin Block continues to develop and is consistent with his high energy level on every shift.
- Ryan Massa was roughed up during the road trip to Colorado and Alaska, and when he returned to the net against Florida on Jan. 21, he started shakily, but is quickly regaining his footing.
- No word yet on the return of Denver Manderson, but if he gets back on the playing roster, that will bring another steady offensive performer to the front to add to the firepower. He might be the missing link needed to rev up Perry.
This week’s games against the Swamp Rabbits will set the tone for what could well be a resurgent month for the Solar Bears. While I would predict the Everblades to continue to ride the crest of the South Division, Orlando has the ability to exit February in a solid second, leaving those two pesky South Carolina squads to scrap for third.