Estero, FL – Before the ECHL South Division Semifinal matchup between the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears started, many were predicting that the series would be short and that the Solar Bears were destined for an early exit.

After some gutsy play by the Orlando squad at the Germain Arena, it seems that the series could still be short, but if so, it will be the Everblades who will be sent packing. The Solar Bears won both Wednesday and Friday games in Estero, and they now head back to Orlando up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.

During the regular season, it was the Everblades who consistently had the upper hand in matches against their in-state rival. Florida claimed the Wawa Sunshine Cup for the second time in a row, capping the regular season off with a 10-0 rout of the Solar Bears on April 8th. However, thus far in the post season, it is Orlando who has come out on top, winning the first two games 4-2 and 3-2.

The Solar Bears have had some key scoring from unlikely places. A case in point is Taylor Doherty who delivered a game as big as his 6’7” frame. Doherty has played 342 pro-games with various teams, such as the Worcester Sharks, Providence Bruins, Toronto Marlies, and of course, Orlando. However, prior to Wednesday, he had never been in a playoff game. He came up with a debut for the memory books, scoring three points in his first game.

The first goal of the 2017 Kelly Cup playoffs was Doherty’s: It came when he exited the penalty box for a high-sticking minor and found himself involved in a rush with teammates Eric Faille and Chris Crane.

In the second frame, Doherty again put Orlando ahead on the scoreboard when he buried the puck on a powerplay. Once more, Crane was involved and got an assist, this time with Mason Marchment being the third man on the scoring play. It was only appropriate that Doherty would return the favor: The game-winning score would come in the second period when a shot by Doherty was rebounded to Crane who scored the tally.

As a result of their mutual three-point efforts, Crane and Doherty now are tied for the franchise record for most points scored in a playoff game. Ironically, they share the record with one other person—Bryce Aneloski who recently joined the Florida Everblades.

In Game Two, Orlando saw more points coming from less expected sources. Ryan Moore, playing only his second game in a Solar Bears uniform, started the scoring early in the first period when he snagged a rebound created by a shot off Joe Perry’s stick. Moore is a nimble 5’8” forward from the Flint Firebirds of the Ontario Hockey League who has given the team some notable energy and speed when he is on the ice.

Veteran defenseman and team captain Eric Baier also delivered a key score for the Solar Bears in Game Two. After Matt Berry had tied up the score at 1-1, Baier made sure to quell any surge from the Everblades by getting a tally less than one minute later when he took a feed from Marchment.

Justin Buzzeo would deliver the final dagger for Orlando in Game Two when linemate Shane Conacher managed to steal the puck right at the offensive blueline and fed Buzzeo for the breakaway goal.

Orlando’s Ryan Massa is one of the league’s top goalies in the playoffs right now, ranking third in GAA (2.00) and fourth in save percentages (.943). Massa tied with Greenville’s Jeff Malcolm in wins at two apiece. Thus far, he has topped Florida’s Alex Nedeljkovic in the goaltending match-up.

Matt Berry has been heroic for the Everblades, accounting for three of their four goals. Berry’s play is notable not only for his speed but also for his agility and his ability to change pace. Florida brings potent offensive firepower to the table, and Brendan O’Donnell, John McCarron, and Mike Aviani have been involved in scoring on the assist side. The Solar Bears have clearly been respecting the potential that the Everblades have to bust open the scoring, and Orlando will need to continue to show some committed, disciplined defense if it is to prevail.

The key to the Solar Bears’ success has been its notable and surprising depth. It is getting scoring from multiple sources, the team is unifying in its defensive efforts, and there is some notable selfless play occurring in all three zones. Thus far, Berry has been shouldering much of the burden for the Everblades, but hockey is ultimately a team affair, and in that regard, the Solar Bears have been the superior squad.

While Orlando has taken a commanding lead in this series, There are a few areas that Orlando needs to improve on. One of the major ones is time of possession. It is still noticeable that Florida has had more puck possession during these games. While this hasn’t proven to be deadly, as the Solar Bears have won the first two games, it has shown to be problematic. Because the Everblades have had more puck control, they have had increased shots on goal.

Another factor is the issues created by Florida’s forecheck. In Game Two, the shots on goal for the Solar Bears was shockingly low. The team averaged 7.33 shots on goal per period. During the regular season, the average SOG per period was 12.33. The drawback is partly due to Orlando’s lack of consistent puck possession, but also largely due to Florida’s forecheck. Orlando will need to find a way to get around the Blades’ aggressive play to help keep up the offense and SOG. Shots remain a key to Orlando’s success, and head coach Drake Berehowsky should continue to focus on finding answers to the killer forecheck of Florida.

The Orlando Solar Bears congratulate goalie Ryan Massa for the win after the April 14 victory over the Florida Everblades (Game 2 of the South Division semi-final match-up in the 2017 Kelly Cup playoffs). Photo: Chad Boerth / The Sin Bin

 

With the teams having nearly a week off before game three, both have time to train and prepare for the next set of games at the Amway Center on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday (April 20, 22, and 23). Games 3 and 4 are at 7:00 p.m. ET and Game Five on Sunday is at 4:00 p.m. ET.

Prior to this week, Orlando was probably hoping to split the games in Estero, to win one or two in Orlando, and then to have a fighting chance in Games Six and Seven back at the Germain Arena. But with the Solar Bearspocketing the opening two games, Berehowsky should have the team gunning for something more—clinching the series on home ice. To do so, the Orlando team will need to keep its foot on the gas. If it can secure a third win on Thursday, the team would most certainly have the city of Orlando turning out to rock the Amway Center for that Saturday showdown on April 22nd.

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