ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando Solar Bears went to North Charleston last week hoping that they could split the opening two games of the South Division semifinals which took place on the South Carolina Stingrays’ home ice. The Solar Bears ended up winning both of those contests, and they were looking to put the Stingrays in a world of hurt with a victory on Thursday night.
The Stingrays, meanwhile, were looking to take the game one shift at a time and to fight their way back into the series. South Carolina knew that falling behind 0-3 would put them on thin ice. And you don’t want to be on thin ice when it’s late April in Florida.
Going into the Thursday game, goaltending and defense had been the keys in the series.
The Stingrays’ Parker Milner had been solid in the net with a 1.52 GAA and a .929 save percentage. But the Solar Bears’ Cal Heeter had been sizzling with a league-leading .050 GAA and a .983 save percentage. South Carolina had been taking shots, but Orlando countered by limiting rebounds and high percentage opportunities.
What Went Down:
The Stingrays entered Thursday’s tilt on a mission—to break down the wall that Heeter has become. They threw what they had at the net, including the kitchen sink. During the opening frame, they registered 21 shots on goal, while holding the Solar Bears shotless up to the closing minute of the period. When Orlando finally managed a dribbled shot in the final minute, the Amway Center lit up. Despite the onslaught, Heeter and the Solar Bears’ defense held up. The period ended scoreless, just as the first period had ended in the previous games.
The Stingrays took their first lead of the series at 7:47 of the second period when the Orlando defense lost track of a rebound and South Carolina’s Mason Mitchell picked it up on the open side of the net.
Nine minutes later, however, Joe Perry found himself by the side of the Stingrays’ net where he caught a sizzling pass from Nolan Valleau and chipped the puck past Milner. This was Valleau’s first professional playoff appearance, and he had just returned to the Solar Bears’ lineup after being released by the AHL’s Utica Comets.
No more scoring occurred in the second or the third period, and the game headed for overtime. The teams were clearly tired, and Orlando had to face two penalty kills. Ironically, the second PK proved to be a blessing. The Solar Bears’ Hunter Fejes took advantage of a flagging Stingray blueline to take a feed from Perry and sprint down the ice past the defenders. He wristed the puck past Milner’s outstretched stick to seal the victory for Orlando.
- Heeter leads the league in the 2018 playoffs thus far with a .982 save percentage and a .61 GAA.
- Orlando’s J. J. Piccinich earned a secondary assist on Perry’s goal on Thursday. This means that he has figured into the scoring in all three playoff games
- Fejes has accounted for two game-winning goals in the playoffs . . . and both of those have been short-handed!
- Milner is ranked 6th in the 2018 playoff goalie rankings with a .931 save percentage and 1.53 GAA.
- Mitchell accounts for both of the goals the Stingrays have scored in the series.
What Made the Difference:
Gritty defensive stands have been a hallmark of the Orlando Solar Bears during the series. In game 2, defenseman Alex Gudbranson made a memorable stop in the closing seconds of the second frame to halt a Stingray surge. And again on Thursday night, he came to Heeter’s defense by swatting away a puck from the crease when Heeter was not able to make the play.
Another key for the Solar Bears has been its ability to stay with its system and to avoid desperation moves. Orlando also been able to capitalize on some of its speed players at opportunistic moments. The Stingrays have a highly structured defense, but they are not a team known for blazing speed.
The Post Game Assessment:
While the attitude in the locker room was quite upbeat following last night’s victory, everyone knew that it wasn’t over yet. When questioned as to what he thinks the team should do to be prepared for game four on Saturday, head coach Drake Berehowsky took a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude:
“We’re going to refocus. We’ll do some video work tomorrow. . . . We’ve got a strong group. We’ve got a great leadership group, so, I’m sure they’re going to make sure everybody’s ready. We will want a better start and play a full 60 minutes next game.”
Heeter reflected on his significant development as a goalie. Asked what keys have accounted for his success, he said:
“It’s tough to say. It’s tough having not been able to work with a goalie coach all year. [I’m] just staying focused, competing hard in practice, and it carries over into the games. You have that extra will or battle that you might need to make that second or third save. . . A lot of credit goes to our team. It’s not just me who’s improving; it’s the team as well.”
The series continues on Saturday night at 7 p.m. The Amway Center will be packed and loud, and the Solar Bears are expecting to feed off of the energy coming from the stands. With a win, Orlando would secure its first playoff series victory since joining the ECHL in the 2012-13 season.