ORLANDO, FL – In the match-up between the Solar Bears and Everblades, Orlando entered as the underdog. They were expected to fall in four or five games. However, the Solar Bears lead their state rival in the best-of-seven series 3-2.

Throughout this series, there has been a continuing pattern—whoever draws first blood will go on to win the game. In Game 3, it was Florida who struck first, and although Orlando came back, the Everblades would go on to win the game 5-4 in overtime off the stick of Brendan O’Donnell. With Anthony Peters in net, O’Donnell scored both the first and last goals for Florida.

Game 4 would see the sun shining again for Orlando as Ryan Massa’s 42-save shutout, paired with goals from Justin Buzzeo, Shane Conacher, and Taylor Doherty, led the team to a 3-0 victory in front of a crowd of 8,243 at the Amway Center. Orlando is now second in the league in average attendance of playoff games (6,311).

However, in Game 5, the storm struck back. With Massa on reserve, Mitch Gillam would step in. However, due to poor defense and lack of energy from his teammates, Florida would go from being up 1-0 to up by four in a matter of minutes at the start of the third period. Although Orlando did get on the board eventually, it was not nearly enough as Florida narrowly avoided elimination with a 5-1 victory.

Buzzeo Pumps Up the Output

Buzzeo was the Atlanta Gladiator’s leading scorer before he came to the Solar Bears in a trade deadline deal, and many Solar Bears faithful were sad to see the high-octane rookie, Alex Gacek (not to mention a future consideration) go. In this series, Buzzeo is paying dividends for Orlando and is answering the doubters. He has scored the game-winning goal in two of the three Solar Bears wins, and he has goals in three of the five games.

Big Doherty Continues Big Scoring

In Game 4, Doherty scored an empty-netter with just over a minute remaining to dash all hopes of an Everblades comeback. That goal continues the blueliner’s impressive point production in the playoffs. Currently, Doherty is tied for the club lead in the playoffs with Denver Manderson and Chris Crane.  All now have six points.

Massa Becomes a Wall

Massa has become a major force for the Solar Bears in this series, and his shared shutout performance on Saturday was memorable. The Orlando goalie stopped all 42 shots he faced, and he now ranks third in save percentage (.941) and fifth in goals against average (2.14). More importantly, he has become the heart of the team on the ice, giving his squad added inspiration with his presence and high-intensity style. His win on Saturday also means that he has overtaken another record previously held by Garret Sparks, this time for most playoff wins.

. . . And a Line Brawl Takes Down the Wall

With little to lose at the close of Game 4 (the Everblades were down 3-0), Florida’s Mitchell Heard instigated a fight with Mason Marchment at center ice with less than two minutes left. Then, while the referees diverted their attention to controlling that situation, the real scrum started by the Orlando net. The fight finally involved all players on the ice, with even Florida’s Alex Nedeljkovic pulling off his gloves and skating down the join in the fracas.

If you want to watch the video of the fight, it starts at 3:33

Massa was at the bottom of the heap with Dalton Smith immediately on top and pummeling. Nedeljkovic worked his way into the stack to join with Smith in delivering head blows to the downed Orlando goalie. At the end, an Everblades player triumphantly threw Massa’s helmet into the boards, an eerie symbol of Nedeljkovic and Smith’s accomplishment.

When the fury had subsided, all on-ice players on both sides were given game misconducts, and Massa saluted the crowd, sending the Amway Center into a frenzy. Heard and Jake Baker, both from Florida, were later given suspensions as a result of their actions in the fight.

If Florida ultimately wins the series, it may be Heard, Baker, Nedeljkovic, and Smith who will be credited with turning the tide for the Everblades and giving them a knockout punch. On Sunday, Massa was placed on reserve as a result of injuries received during the fight. That left the largely untested rookie, Gillam to tend the net for the Solar Bears. While Gillam put up a formidable show during the first two frames, defensive lapses in the final period doomed the Solar Bears’ effort to claim the series at home. It is clear that Massa gives the team a commanding presence on the ice that is missed.

Ryan Massa briefly returned to his feet after the line brawl that occurred with less than a minute remaining. He missed Game 5 due to the injuries he sustained, and his status is uncertain for Game 6. Photo: Chad Boerth / The Sin Bin

Marlies Injection?

Massa’s status is still uncertain, but with the Toronto Maple Leafs now eliminated from the Stanley Cup finals, there is speculation as to whether the unfortunate fate of the Solar Bears’ NHL affiliate will prove a boon to the ECHL club. Already, part of the success of Orlando this year must be credited to Kyle Dubas (General Manager of the Toronto Marlies), who has been more deliberate and calculating in his use of call-ups. In particular, goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo is eligible to join the Solar Bears. Since joining the AHL ranks, he has achieved a 1.84 GAA and a .934 save percentage in seven games. Defenseman Brendan Miller and forward Tony Cameranesi are other players currently with the Marlies but who would not be surprising to see in playoff action with the Solar Bears.

Keys for Success

With Game 6 coming up, the Solar Bears will have to find a way to lay down the hammer and clinch this series. One factor that has played a key role in this series is who strikes first. If Orlando can find a way to open the scoring and keep the heat on Florida while at the same time, providing solid defense in front of whoever is in net, they should be fine. However, if they slack like they did in Game 5, then we could be seeing a different outcome to this series.

Orlando continues to struggle with setting up its power play. Once they have themselves positioned in the offensive zone, they have been finding good scoring opportunities, but the team has been out of sync when trying to break across the blue line and have spent too much time chasing down the puck. At times, the Solar Bears have even found themselves on their heels defensively when having the man advantage.

Puck handling and management is a must. Florida continues to reap the rewards of its strong forecheck. The Solar Bears need everyone to maintain discipline and uphold their assignments on defense, and they need to be more consistent with their puck handling, passing, and breakouts.

Coach Drake Berehowsky has stressed time of possession, and players like Eric Faille, Crane, and Conacher will need to play key roles not simply in getting into the offensive zone, but keeping possession, setting up scoring opportunities, and keeping Florida’s offense in check.

Finally, Orlando must be ready to play intense but disciplined hockey. Florida will be looking for opportunities to rattle the goalie and to send the Solar Bears to the sin bin. The squad needs to keep the goal of winning in mind and not get suckered into cheap penalties.

Game 6 is at 7:30 EST tonight, and Game 7 (if necessary) is at 7:30 EST on Wednesday. Both games are at the Germain Arena in Estero.

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