ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando Solar Bears look to get a quick start out of the gate this year. Making a drastic change from his overhaul strategy two years ago, head coach Drake Berehowsky has filled his roster with a number of returning players. In addition, he is maintaining a productive double-barrelled pipeline: Both the Tampa Bay Lightning (Orlando’s official NHL affiliate) and the San Jose Sharks are sending players to suit up with the Solar Bears.
After two second-round exits in the Kelly Cup Playoffs over the past two years, Berehowsky is determined to make the third time the charm. Simply getting into the postseason is not enough this year. Look for another spirited battle between the Solar Bears and their in-state rivals the Florida Everblades.
Nuts and Bolts:
2018-19 Record: 41-25-5-1 (.611)
Division/Conference Finish: 2nd in the South Division, 3rd in the Eastern Conference
Playoff Finish: Defeated in five games by the Florida Everblades in the South Division finals.
Record vs. Division: 35-19-4-1 (.636)
Record vs. Conference: 40-23-5-1 (.623)
Goals For Per Game: 3.49 (4th in ECHL)
Goals Against Per Game: 3.31 (8th in ECHL)
Power Play: 16.2% (17th in ECHL)
Penalty Kill: 78.0% (27th in ECHL)
Special teams will be front and center for the Solar Bears this year. The last-place finish in the penalty kill category is still a sore spot. Seasoned defensemen like Mike Monfredo, Taylor Doherty, and Alexander Kuqali will bear the weight for keeping the team disciplined and focused around its net. The key for the Solar Bears will be to maintain its physical game while avoiding meaningless penalties. When playing down a man, the squad needs an approach that will put more pressure on the puck. Last year, the Solar Bears allowed too many easy entries and played back on their heels, allowing the opponents to get set up around the perimeter.
During his intermission interview at the Florida Everblades this weekend, Berehowsky said,
“I don’t think there will be as much of a growing period . . . because we have a lot of returnees. We have a lot of good players and a lot of players who have been in the league for a while. We’ve gotten bigger, and we’ve gotten faster.”
Zach Sawchenko looked very strong in the net during the preseason tilts against the Florida Everblades this past weekend. Aside from solid skills between the pipes, he brings a nimble skating and puck-handling game to the table, which should help the Solar Bears in transition. Sawchenko is on loan from the San Jose Barracuda and garnered an impressive 28-4-1 record over two seasons with the University of Alberta.
Cody Donaghey will be an important anchor for the blueline this year. The Solar Bears will be depending on him for his solid two-way play and for his ability to handle the puck and spark the transition game.
Brent Pedersen is back this year to help lead the Solar Bears’ offensive attack. He is one of the most potent scoring threats in Berehowsky’s arsenal.
Gone but Not Forgotten:
The Solar Bears fans were hoping that Hunter Fejes would return for another tour of duty, but it seems that he will spend his season at the AHL level. He has signed on with the Manitoba Moose. But, the team retains his ECHL rights.
Tayler Thompson signed with the Solar Bears in the summer, but then promptly signed a contract with Piráti Chomutov, a Czech hockey team.
Connor Ingram, who was the Solar Bears’ go-to goalie at the end of last season, was traded by the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Nashville Predators at the start of the offseason.
Sin Bin Swami Sez:
The Solar Bears are on a mission this season: Berehowsky is determined to make it over the hump and past the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs. The main roadblock is going to be their in-state nemesis the Florida Everblades.
Brad Ralph, the Everblades’ head coach, has once again built a strong squad, and for Orlando to go deep into the postseason, Berehowsky is going to need a team that is up to playing with discipline, commitment, and intensity for a full 60-minute game. The Solar Bears seem to have the talent to achieve this goal. The question now is whether Berehowsky and assistant coach Jared Staal can instill the mental and psychological toughness their squad needs.
What Say You?
Chad Boerth contributed to this article. Robbie and Chad cover the Orlando Solar Bears for the Sin Bin and you can follow them on Twitter @SinBinSolarBear.