ORLANDO, FL – In our last edition, we covered five of my list of 10 keys for the Solar Bears’ playoff push. Things have become even more heated in the battle for the South Division as the Cincinnati Cyclones have been surging forward. Now, we close out the list with the remaining five keys.
#6: Don’t Count on South Carolina and Cincinnati to Stumble
With the current standings, the Solar Bears, Greenville Swamp Rabbits, South Carolina Stingrays, and Cincinnati Cyclones are lining up in tight order to battle for second in the South Division. Only seven points make the difference between second place and fifth place. One statistic stands out between these teams, and that is their record over the last 10 games. Orlando is 4-4-1-1 in this category, while Greenville is 8-2-0-0, and South Carolina and Cincinnati both stand at 6-4-0-0. This statistic shows that the cruise mode is not going to work in the South. Too many teams are working at full throttle, and those will be the ones to earn a spot for the postseason.
#7: Plug in the Power Play
The Solar Bears have improved tremendously on the power play in the past few games. However, there is one aspect that requires special focus—successfully working across the neutral zone to settle things in the offensive end. Power plays have often started strong with the offensive zone faceoff, but once a clear happens, the Solar Bears have too often struggled to maintain the momentum. There have been several instances when Orlando has wasted precious power play time due to the puck being taken away when entering across the blue line or due to easy clearouts when the opposition has been treated to some soft plays deep in the zone. Despite a power play slump in January and early February, the team is fourth in the South Division with their power play percentage being 17.0%. The team was clearly starting to regain its edge during the man advantage in the most recent series against Norfolk and Atlanta.
#8: Activate the Road Warrior Mojo
Starting on March 17, the Solar Bears will go on a nine-game road trip that will take them first to the Florida Everblades and then on to Adirondack and Brampton. The tour ends with a pair of games against the South Carolina Stingrays. The Solar Bears have worked some magic on road trips over the preceding three seasons. Last year, the team went 5-2 on a seven-game trip in January and then 5-1 during a six-game trip in March. And the previous year involved a memorable 8-5 record during a monster 13-game journey during November and December. The team should take a lesson from its own history and look to gain an extra boost and focus on the lengthy stretch on the road that faces them in March.
#9: Bring Back the Generals
While the Solar Bears have had help from players like Joe Perry, Austin Block, Alex Gacek, and others, there are two players who the Solar Bears have not heard much from this month—Denver Manderson and captain Eric Baier. The team has missed the leadership of these players, and their experience and cool-headedness would be a boon to the team if they could return to the ice in March. To add to the team’s concerns, coach Drake Berehowsky experienced an unexpected medical emergency on Feb. 22 and was hospitalized. The team has reported that he is in good spirits, and everyone across hockey is wishing for a swift recovery. On the positive side, the team has shown in the past that they can successfully win without Berehowsky, as when the squad was in Alaska they managed to win when Berehowsky was suspended for one game. Assistant Coach John Snowden has been comfortable and confident behind the bench. The team has been resilient in dealing with the adversity, but if and when Baier, Manderson, and Berehowsky return, it would give the squad some added firepower.
#10: Take Advantage of Home Ice
When it comes to a sports team, there is nothing better than being in your home arena, surrounded by your home fans. It is critical that the Solar Bears make sure that they continue to win at the Amway Center. Orlando is one of those teams which has a history of sputtering on home ice. While they have been winning at home much more frequently this season, their success on home ice hasn’t been as great in the past. In the 2015-16 campaign, they were 26th out of 28 teams in the league in home ice wins. Considering how great their home fan base was during last season (and in general,) this was quite unsettling. The situation contributed to the hiring of Berehowsky mid-season this year. Thankfully, the newly returning coach brought some notable improvements in giving the Solar Bears a home ice edge. But Berehowsky and Snowden would be wise to make sure that the warm weather and relaxation that is part of the Orlando vibe doesn’t cause his squad to take it easy going down the final stretch.
The Days Ahead
This week, the Solar Bears face two huge games against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Thursday and Saturday. This series will be a factor in deciding the final standings in the South Division.
Orlando gets a few days before squaring off, but R&R hasn’t always been a good thing for the team before home matches (see #10 above). The team took the day off on Monday, which is well deserved. But interim coach Snowden and his squad should be sure to get serious midweek to be sure they don’t show up sluggish against the Swamp Rabbits.
Some have wondered if Greenville is for real, and they have proven repeatedly that they are. On Sunday they made mincemeat of the Reading Royals, doubling them up 6-3. Four of the Swamp Rabbits’ goals came on special teams with one short-hander and three power play strikes, with two of those happening 30-seconds apart. In short, the Swamp Rabbits are sporting nasty, big, pointy teeth, and they carry a vicious streak a mile wide. They are not a team to be trifled with, and they can be expected to pounce on any advantage.