ORLANDO, FL – With the Kelly Cup Playoffs right around the corner, the race is on to see which teams make the playoffs. Right now, it seems Orlando has a good shot of returning to the dance. However, they are in a deadlocked race with the South Carolina Stingrays and Greenville Swamp Rabbits, who are shackled with Orlando in a three-way tie for second in the South Division.
While it seems like taking the South is out of Orlando’s league right now — that will go to the Everblades, who have a 12-point lead over the others — they do have a shot of taking second. But to do so requires continuously winning and not counting on either South Carolina team to start a losing streak.
In my mind, there are 10 key factors that will assist the Solar Bears in making the playoffs.
I cover the first five here, and we’ll follow up with the final five at the end of the week.
#1: Resuscitate the Penalty Kill
The Solar Bears currently rank last in the league in its penalty kill, which now rests at a dismal 75.3% . . . and that number continues to fall. In the three-game series against Norfolk this past week, Orlando went a brutal 5 for 10 on the PK, and you can bet that other teams will find creative ways to exploit this glaring weakness. A case in point occurred in the final game against Norfolk. The Solar Bears were just two-and-a-half minutes from pulling off a sweep of the Admirals when Daniel Maggio was called for a charging minor. When Norfolk pulled goalie Philippe Desrosiers to give the Admirals a 6-to-4 man advantage, the Solar Bears were doomed, and former Solar Bear T. J. Foster fired the game-tying goal in quick order. The game ultimately ended with an Admirals victory in a shoot-out. If there is one bit of good news with the penalty kill, it is that Orlando can’t fall any lower in the league. The only way is up.
#2: Put it into Overdrive in Overtime
Here again, the only way is up for the Solar Bears. They currently have a .182 overtime win percentage, which puts them last in the league. In the most recent shoot-out loss to Norfolk, the Solar Bears mustered one good possession during overtime, but from there on out, it was all Admirals. Orlando has gone past the regulation 11 times this year and only twice have they come out with a victory. You can bet that those odds will impact how opposing teams will approach the Solar Bears when the score is close in the final minutes.
More to the point, if Orlando were to slump down the stretch, the nine points they have left on the table could have a huge impact on their playoff chances.
#3: Swamp Rabbits and Stingrays Will Have Solar Bears Either Singing “Sweet Caroline” or Choking on the Carolina Reaper
In the past, I would have said the games against the Swamp Rabbits and the Stingrays were no more or less important than any other games. But right now, these games are critical. Basically, if anyone blinks, they could be out—especially if the underdog Cincinnati Cyclones stay hot. March will begin with a two-game series at home against Greenville, and the month will end with a two-game series against the Stingrays at the North Charleston Coliseum. Those match-ups will play a determining role in deciding the final South Division standings.
#4: Playoff Push Should Include an Advertising Blitz
Chairman and CEO Joe Haleski has done a remarkable job this year keeping the ship stable after the departure of Jason Siegel in May. In the midst of another painful season for the Orlando Magic and a disappointing one for the Orlando City Lions, the Solar Bears should continue to find ways to capitalize on the fact that the city has a winning team which currently looks playoff bound. The team needs some help from news outlets like the Orlando Sentinel, which continues to give the front-page treatment to routine off-season news for the Orlando City Lions, while, notable, scrappy victories for the Solar Bears get budgeted to the bottom corner of page two. As the season winds down, the Solar Bears should look to invest some additional funds in advertising and promoting a team that appears destined for the playoffs.
#5: Be a Buyer as the ECHL Trade Deadline Approaches
When it comes to trades thus far, head coach Drake Berehowsky has done some admirable work. The mid-season acquisitions of players like Alex Gacek and Darik Angeli are prime examples. However, with the trade deadline approaching rapidly, time is running out for Orlando to find solutions to some critical weak spots in its armor. If the team can find the opportunity to acquire a veteran defenseman or a small, quick-footed puck handler, they should make the move. One trick is to find players on teams that would be in a selling mood, and that means losing teams with no playoff hopes. And you also have to count out franchise players—that is, players who teams are heavily invested in keeping.
So who would be left? Two players that the Solar Bears have seen recently and who might fit the bill are Paul Cianfrini and Maxime St. Cyr. Cianfrini is a defenseman for the Norfolk Admirals, and he carries a bounty of experience. He has played with the Toledo Walleye, Wheeling Nailers, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and the now defunct Trenton Devils. He has abundant playoff experience, most recently helping the Nailers make it to the 2016 Kelly Cup Finals against the Allen Americans.
St. Cyr was recently traded from the Swamp Rabbits to the Wichita Thunder. He has been bounced around this year, which has made it hard for him to get a fair footing. He has the potential to be a playmaker, someone who could activate big forwards like Mason Marchment and Joe Perry near the net.
The ways of trades are mysterious and strange, but those types of players might be available and would be able to help with some of the special teams woes that have befallen the Solar Bears. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the name Rory Rawlyk floated around: He is another well-seasoned blueliner currently playing for the Atlanta Gladiators. The Gladiators are likely out of serious playoff contention. He would bring spirit and leadership to Orlando, but the question is whether he is spry enough to keep up with the grasshoppers in the league.
What do you think the Solar Bears should do to make the playoffs? Let me know!