ORLANDO, FL – On Dec. 15, the Orlando Solar Bears were 10-11-4-0, and they were eager to play two back-to-back series against the struggling Norfolk Admirals. The reasonable expectation was that Orlando could earn eight out of a possible 10 points against Norfolk. This feat would catapult them over the Atlanta Gladiators and even have the Solar Bears locked in a battle with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits for third place in the South Division.
The series did not go as planned, as the Solar Bears found themselves frustrated by a resurgent Admirals team anchored by some phenomenal goaltending by Ty Reichenbach.
The initial two-game set in Norfolk saw the Solar Bears losing the first game but then roaring back with a commanding 7-2 victory on Dec. 16. That match featured some spectacular play by Josh Winquist who scored two goals and was credited with an assist on a third. Three other Orlando players (J. C. Campagna, Nolan Valleau, and Max Novak) had two-point nights.
The second series with Norfolk started on Dec. 20 at Orlando’s Amway Center, but Reichenbach stifled the Solar Bears’ hopes for a festive pre-Christmas homecoming. After falling to the Admirals on Wednesday and getting shut out on Thursday, the Solar Bears looked to turn the tide and gain a win on home ice Saturday before the Christmas break. With the annual teddy bear toss being held that night, Orlando wanted to send the fans home happy.
These hopes would be shattered. Orlando allowed two quick goals by Norfolk in the first period to put them in a hole early. Those goals were partly the result of penalties. An icing call barely one minute into the opening frame allowed the Admirals to take advantage of some sluggish play in Orlando’s defensive zone, and Christian Horn made the home team pay.
A few minutes later, Norfolk found itself on the power play due to a delay of game call, and this time Michael Young would seize the advantage and put Orlando down 0-2.
The Solar Bears came roaring back in the second with a rebound shot off the stick of Joe Perry, which sent stuffed animals flying to the ice. A few minutes later, Chris LeBlanc scored a shorthanded goal after a beautiful setup by Novak. But the Solar Bears were unable to finish the job, as Norfolk took the game 3-2 in a shootout to complete a sweep of the Solar Bears in Orlando’s home den.
The Solar Bears-Admirals series saw a battle of the goalies on both sides, with Orlando’s Cal Heeter and Mackenzie Skapski battling Norfolk’s Reichenbach.
Throughout the series, several Solar Bears players had stellar performances. Novak had a two-point night on Saturday, gaining a goal and an assist. Darryl Bootland also had a point-filled night on Wednesday, gaining two goals, including the game’s first goal 2:44 into the first period. There is also some buzz going on about Bootland in the fan community. The Solar Bears fans have taken an instant liking to him, coming up with the new catch phrase of “Respect the Beard,” as seen on a fan’s sign at Saturday’s game. During the jersey auction that night, Bootland’s game-worn ugly Christmas sweater jersey went for $1800.
The Solar Bears are again facing a recurrent problem of finding wins on home ice. Currently, the team’s home record stands at 3-7-2-1, while it has achieved a respectable 8-7-2-0 record on the road. During the press conference, Joe Perry stated,
“The normal thing is to be better at home than on the road… I really couldn’t put a finger on why we’ve been struggling at home. I feel like we’ve been playing pretty good. We just haven’t put sixty minutes together to get the win. But it’s always good to be home. We’ve got to treat the fans to more wins.”
After the Christmas break, Orlando will be squaring off against its in-state rivals. It plays the Jacksonville Icemen on Wednesday and then has a home-and-home series against the Florida Everblades on Dec. 29 and 30.
During the post-game press conference, head Coach Drake Berehowsky was frustrated but even-keeled and looking forward to the effect of the upcoming Christmas break on the squad. He said,
“I think right now the guys just need some time to rest. . . . This last stretch has been really tough. [The team] needs some time away to regen themselves.”
Perry was optimistic and upbeat about the future. When he was asked what he would say to Santa if he was given a wish, he said,
“Maybe Santa can throw us a few bounces here and there and get us a win streak after the break.”