ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando Solar Bears have taken advantage of a home-heavy February to take sole possession of second place in the South Division. This is happening during a time when head coach Drake Berehowsky has had to be creative in pulling together his forward lines. But the inventive solutions have been working, thanks in large measure to the buy-in of his players.
Thanks to a 3-2 Sunday win over the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, Orlando has swept its last two home series. To help out matters, the South Carolina Stingrays have found themselves mired in a nine-game losing streak. If the Stingrays can’t find a solution to its current woes, it looks like it will be Orlando, the Jacksonville Icemen, and the surging Atlanta Gladiators who will be jockeying for the second through four seats in the playoffs.
If one had to point to one factor that has made a difference for the Solar Bears, it would be the offensive fire being provided by defensemen. When Berehowsky had workhorse blueliner Mike Monfredo switch to a forward position in mid-February, one thought it would be a one-game stopgap measure. But Monfredo’s line, which usually involves the nimble Corey Kalk and a grind-it-out forward like Tayler Thompson or Alex Schoenborn, has been solid. That combination was the starting line in the Saturday night tilt against the Swamp Rabbits, and the Solar Bears have managed to average over four goals a game in March.
Asked about what is making the Kalk-Monfredo line so effective, Berehowsky said,
“All of them are working hard right now. They are paying attention to the details of their game, and they communicate on the ice. They do those small, detailed things well, and they are getting rewarded for it.”
Also, a factor is veteran blueliner Akim Aliu, whom the team acquired on February 5. Though Aliu has admittedly been working to find his game legs, he has been an impact player, averaging just under a point a game during his short time with the team, and making several clutch defensive plays.
Another key piece to Orlando’s offensive output has been Jackson Playfair who signed on Feb. 15 after finishing his season with Dalhousie University. This is another move that some expected to be a temporary patch for a gap in the forward lineups, but once again, has been proven wrong. Playfair has been blistering on the offense, scoring two goals against the Swamp Rabbits on Saturday night, and followed up the next day with an assist. In five games played, he has four goals and three assists. With those numbers, it would be hard to see the Solar Bears taking Playfair out of the lineup.
Though the Solar Bears are riding a crest of success, they need to prepare for a challenging final stretch. There are 20 games left in the season, and nine of those games will be against teams who are leading their divisions. Six tilts will occur with the always-disciplined and intense Florida Everblades. On March 8, Orlando will travel up to the northern reaches to play a three-game series against the Newfoundland Growlers. Orlando should see some of its forwards on injured reserve come back, which should give it added spark on the offensive end.
When asked about the upcoming series home-and-home series against the Everblades and what the Solar Bears need to do to be successful, Monfredo said,
“They are a very disciplined team, so we’ve got to play our style—get in on the forecheck, not turn pucks over, not give them odd-man rushes. If we can do all the little things, we will definitely have some success.”
Rugged and steady defenseman Zach Frye, who is on loan from the San Jose Barracuda, echoed Monfredo’s blue-collar sentiment,
“It can sound a little repetitive, but when we stick to our game plan, chip pucks in, take the body, and play our simple game, we can control most games. So if we can just stick to that and not veer away, we will be fine.”
A worthy goal for Orlando would be to earn at least nine out of eighteen points in those games against Newfoundland and Florida and then to take care of business in those remaining games against more vulnerable opponents. Don’t bank on anyone catching the Florida Everblades, though, who holds a comfortable 17-point lead in the South. That said, if the Solar Bears can keep up the disciplined play, take care of puck possession, and put in a full 60 minutes each night, they will set themselves up for the number two seed heading into the playoffs.
The Solar Bears hit the Amway Center ice at 7 p.m. EST on Wednesday to take on the Florida Everblades for the first of a three-game set with the ‘Blades.