ORLANDO, FL – With the return of head coach Drake Berehowsky, Orlando is showing signs of major improvement.

After winning their school day game 7-4 over the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Thursday, November 17, Orlando has gone on to gain 7 out of 8 points under the new-old coach’s young tenure. It has secured a 3rd place seat in the South Division. Orlando’s percentage has improved to a .600, higher than that of the second-place Atlanta Gladiators (.500), and second to that of the first-seated Florida Everblades (.719).

Significantly, the surge has occurred on home ice, and winning in the Amway Center den is a major mission for Berehowsky. Prior to Berehowsky’s arrival, Orlando carried a lowly .286 home record percentage which had them tied for 22nd place in the ECHL in that category. That figure has now climbed to .500, and the Solar Bears are tied with four other teams for 15th place in the home record percentage category.

By all signs, the difficult decision to replace Anthony Noreen with Berehowsky seems to be a work of genius on the part of the team’s management. Berehowsky is visibly delighted with his initial success, the team is stoked, and the fans are cheering.

Everyone is wondering how long the honeymoon will last. If the surge continues for another month, Berehowsky will have us believing that there really is a Santa Claus.

Solar Bears Keep the Surge Going Against the Mavericks and the Beast

The Solar Bears started the Thanksgiving week with a short back-to-back series against the Missouri Mavericks, a team that Orlando had not played previously.

The first game started out rough, with the Mavericks’ first goal against Orlando being unassisted due to Kasimir Kaskisuo leaving his crease to retrieve his stick while the puck was still in the Solar Bears’ defensive zone. This decision left an inviting vacated net for Justin Selman to score on. Orlando would strike back, however, when rookie defenseman Jon Jutzi fed Denver Manderson from behind the net at 16:08 of the first.

In the second, Joe Perry continued to show that he is a master at working hard to get in front of crease to score the dirty goal.  Fed by Trevor Ludwig from the side board, Perry struck at 13:08 to give Orlando a 2-1 lead. But Missouri would have an equalizer when Rocco Carzo snuck one by Kaskisuo during a two-on-one rush to tie it at 2-2 at the end of two.

Orlando would pull ahead in the third, with Manderson getting another goal at 10:56 on a magically sharp-angled shot that made it by netminder Ville Husso. Not to be outdone, Missouri once again came back, as Dane Fox showed that he too could score off a sharp angle, and he made it 3-3 with less than three minutes left to send it into overtime.

The Mavericks would go on to win in overtime. Husso would come up big against a breakaway by Orlando’s Eric Faille. Sam Povorozniouk managed to put enough juice on the ensuing shot at the other side of the rink to dribble the puck just over the goal line for a Mavericks win.

In the second game, things initially seemed to be on replay, as Missouri once again struck first, this time on a power play. However, goalie Ryan Massa would quickly settle his zone, and Orlando would tally a total of seven goals in the second game. Perry kept on the gravy train and netted his first career hat trick, scoring at 6:24 of the first, and at 2:30 and 15:33 of the second.

The second period was the stake in the heart for the Mavericks. The Solar Bears stonewalled Missouri, which didn’t get a single shot on goal for well over half the frame. Meanwhile, the Bears’ offense fired off shot after shot, with a number of pucks finding the back of the net. Orlando brought on special pain when playing down a man. Acting as though his team had the advantage, Faille took the puck deep into the Mavericks’ zone and then started fending off two defenders. He finally found teammate Brett Findlay streaking towards the net and dished it off. Then, he proceeded to get the puck back from Findlay in front of the net to earn the tally. The final score of the rout was 7-2 in favor of Orlando.

On Thanksgiving, the Solar Bears were treated to roast Beast as they hosted Brampton for the first game of a three-game series. Patrick Watling was the star of the opening period and showed that Orlando has depth across multiple lines. His first goal came off a rebounded long-range shot fired by Tony Cameranesi. Watling positioned himself perfectly to pick up the puck deflecting off the pad of goalie Zach Fucale. The line of Faille and Watling then executed a razzle-dazzle tic-tac-toe sequence while playing monkey in the middle with Brampton’s Garrett Clarke to take a 2-0 lead heading into the second frame.

The Beast would roar back in the second with two lightning strikes by Brandon MacLean. The first was a tally that took less than one minute of the period to earn, and the second was a killer steal off a face-off that left Massa and the Solar Bears temporarily stunned. But once again, Massa would settle things down, and in the third, Mason Marchment would earn a game-winning goal (and his first goal in a Solar Bears uniform) by stealing a pass and driving into the Beast zone.

It’s Not Christmas Yet

While there have been several improvements to the team, the Solar Bears can’t afford to hibernate.

Orlando’s rookie goaltender Kaskisuo, in particular, will need watching and bolstering. With a save percentage of .884 and some questionable play around the goal, he is going to be an obvious target for Orlando’s opponents, who will look to test and rattle him. As a Toronto Marlies prospect, the Bears will have to give him more time on the ice, but he is clearly struggling to get his bearings, and his puck handling and decision making abilities need to be addressed. Massa should serve as a solid role model and leader for him, and he should also be helped by a veteran group of defenders around him. Even with assistance, however, Kaskisuo needs to shoulder the burden and show he has what it takes to play at this level.

One hates to bring up ghosts from the past, but fans with a memory must be thinking about Berehowsky’s record. During the Solar Bears’ out-of-hibernation season, Berehowsky’s team earned a commendable home record, with the team ranking thirteenth in that category. But his away record was disastrous, with a .250 win percentage that left the team dead last in that category. The Solar Bears’ current home stand ends on December 2, and then the team will go on an extended 10-game road trip. So potholes may be lurking around the corner.

Two factors will play into Berehowsky’s favor.

First, the Solar Bears have become road warriors in his absence, and in their first sequence of away games this season, they have racked up a .875 win percentage. In addition, assistant coach John Snowden should be able to give some guidance as to how the Bears have managed to rampage while in enemy territory. Berehowsky has publically praised Snowden’s coaching acumen, and he credited his second-in-command with helping to put craft the lines that have pumped up the offensive output. Snowden’s expertise is a secret weapon behind Berehowsky’s bench, and it should help to keep the good times rolling on the road.

The Solar Bears finish up their home stand with two games against the Brampton Beast on November 26 and November 28 and one game against their fierce state rival the Florida Everblades on December 2. That game also marks the Solar Bears’ annual teddy bear toss night.

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