ORLANDO, FL – Halloween week of 2017 brought back some familiar and not-so-friendly ghosts to the home den of the Orlando Solar Bears. Despite a drastic overhaul in the team’s line-up, the narrative that has played out thus far is uncanny in its similarities to last year.

In the days leading up to Halloween, the Solar Bears faced an Atlanta Gladiators line-up that featured numerous former Orlando players. Lindsay Sparks, Chase Witala, Ben Danford, and Taylor Doherty were all on the other bench, and, they did what ghosts do best—they haunted and chilled.

The Atlanta series that occurred on Oct. 28 and 29 could be called The Return of the Nightmare on Church Street since it replayed so many elements of the disappointing Halloween losses that occurred at the same time last year. On the Oct. 28 match, the Solar Bears let the Gladiators strike first. Even though Orlando surged back with two goals late in the first, it would be Atlanta bettering Orlando in the wild 5-4 loss. And the next day, Orlando would fall again to Atlanta by a score of 4-2, with none other than a former Solar Bear—Doherty—serving up the game-winning goal for the opposing side.

With Atlanta dashing the hopes for a triumphant home opener, Orlando was hungry as it entered the two-game series against the Florida Everblades on Wednesday and Saturday. But in both matches, the Everblades acted like playground bullies stealing candy. It became noticeably clear who the dominant team was during the matches.

Florida would score first with a tally off the stick of Stephen MacAulay in Wednesday’s match, but Orlando would quickly strike back with two power play goals, scored by Jeff King and Chris LeBlanc after a trio of Florida players found themselves sharing the sin bin. However, this would not be enough, as Florida would strike three more times during the game to take a 4-3 victory over Orlando.

What made Wednesday’s defeat especially painful is that Orlando had the lead going into the final minute. A costly cross-checking penalty sent Florida on the power play, and the Everblades pulled Callum Booth from the goal to give them two men up in the offensive zone. With 45 seconds left, Mitchell Heard came up with the goal that sent the game into overtime, and Michael Kirkpatrick then finished off the Solar Bears in overtime.

Saturday’s game had a similar outcome, though this time, Orlando was even more off balance at the start. Florida struck first, and it struck hard, with Orlando falling into a 2-0 hole before six minutes had elapsed in the match. Brett Bulmer and Logan Roe tallied the first two goals for Florida.

The Solar Bears clawed back to tie things up thanks to some hard-earned tallies by Max Novak and Jean Dupuy. But Florida closed things off decisively in the final frame and won by a score of 4-2. Kirkpatrick gained a total of three assists, earning the first star of the game.

As in previous years, the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears are a study in contrasts. Most notably, the Everblades have a team anchored by many returning players. Heard, Kirkpatrick, Roe, Matt Berry, John McCarron, and Zack Kamrass are all back in the swamp green outfits. Watching the team, it is clear that many of these players know each other well. Their passes are sharp, they know where their teammates are, and they follow up on their assignments. This early on-ice cohesion has allowed the Everblades to gobble up wins while other South Division teams are still trying to gain their footing.

With the season off to a rough start for the Solar Bears, one might ask the question: What needs to change?

Team Chemistry

Well, one thing that needs to for sure improve is the chemistry between the members of the team. The Solar Bears have had their moments when they shine, and moments when they break down.

In a post game interview, Novak said, “We’ve been improving every day so far. . . With a new team like that, it might take some time, which we’re kind of seeing right now, but I think it’s going to turn around for us.”

The Solar Bears are betting that their players will tighten up as a unit as the season progresses. They are also hoping that veterans Darryl Bootland and Sean Zimmerman will soon be in the lineup after recovering from their surgeries.

Avoid Turnovers and Untimely Penalties

Head Coach Drake Berehowsky has repeatedly noted that too many turnovers have been converted into scores by the opposing teams. Adding to these woes have been some unwise penalties late in the frame. The team cannot expect to put itself into holes and then work miracles. As Berehowsky said,

“We can’t spot teams two goals and then expect to battle back every night. We have to be solid in our d-zone, and we’ve got to capitalize on our chances.”

Stability Between the Pipes

The Solar Bears entered the year feeling secure in the net. But Cal Heeter was injured on opening night, and he has struggled to regain his composure and confidence. The team has shown patience in Heeter, but the Everblades series has raised concerns.

With Matt Hackett unexpectedly leaving the club to pursue other opportunities, the Solar Bears have been searching for an answer. The recent acquisition of Mackenzie Skapski may provide the stability that Orlando needs. The former Swamp Rabbits netminder signed a deal with the Toronto Marlies and was reassigned to the Solar Bears by the  Marlies late last week. Though no word has officially come through, it would not be surprising to see Skapski taking the goal for Orlando when the Solar Bears battle against Skapski’s former team.

The Solar Bears will be looking hungrily for its first home wins of the year when they take on the Greenville Swamp Rabbits tonight at 7 p.m. and on Thursday at 10:30 a.m. The Thursday game will be the second annual school-day game for the Solar Bears.

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