The closing weeks of December have not been kind to the Orlando Solar Bears. Having lost speedy forwards like Brett Findlay, the Solar Bears seem to have returned to their old ways: a team which allows opponents to take a large amount of shots on goal, puck handling lapses, ineffective zone clearing, and a heavy reliance on the goaltenders.  With losses to the Florida Everblades and the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, it is evident that the Solar Bears need to get their spark back . . . and they need to do so in quick order.  

January will put coach Drake Berehowsky’s team to the ultimate test. The Solar Bears will wrap up their five-game home stand against the Manchester Monarchs on Tuesday. The Monarchs lead the North Division, and they swept the Solar Bears in January of last year. Things won’t get any easier after that match as the Solar Bears will head out west to play games against the Alaska Aces and the Colorado Eagles. The Bears will return to Florida to face their all-too-familiar rival the Everblades on January 20 and 21, and the test will end with a two-game series against the Allen Americans on January 26 and 29.

Here is what this schedule boils down to. The Solar Bears will be facing the top team in the North Division, the top three teams in the Mountain Division, and the top team in its own South Division. There will be no other teams faced by Orlando in January.

The outcome of this month could well decide the playoff fate of the Solar Bears. They don’t need to sweep teams or go on a long winning streak, but they do need to put some victories together and to reverse some troubling trends. Orlando won only a single game in its last seven outings in December. Fortunately, three of the six losses were in overtime, but the Solar Bears need to regain their footing in January. If they can’t accomplish this, they will find themselves facing a chilly February in central Florida.

Less Turtle Defense, More Power Play Production

Over the past two weeks, there have been several noticeable trends with Orlando that need to be addressed.  

Especially glaring is the number of shots the Solar Bears have been taking. In the past six games, Orlando’s opponents have averaged 42 SOG. Fortunately, the Solar Bears have seen some outstanding play by its two netminders Ryan Massa and Kasimir Kaskisuo. Massa earned the team record for saves in a single game when he rejected a furious 57-shot onslaught by the Florida Everblades on Dec. 22. While Massa deserves kudos for that achievement, it is a dubious one for the team as a whole since it means they put Massa in front of a non-stop barrage of enemy fire.

Another unsettling trend is the special teams. While Orlando’s overall power play record is ranked 12th in the league, their overall penalty kill is third to last. And their power play has been struggling recently. Prior to an Eric Faille tally in their last game against the Swamp Rabbits, the team had experienced a drought of 29 power play opportunities that came up empty. Berehowsky has been addressing the special teams, and if he can get the team to sharpen on the power play, this will aid them in their games against Alaska, Colorado, and Allen who are all in the top seven in the league when it comes to racking up penalty minutes.

Orlando opened the season with a number of quick and nimble forwards to complement its veteran defense. As weeks have passed, however, many of these players have been called up by Orlando’s AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies. This has left the team scrambling to put together lines that have good offensive capability. The Solar Bears have acquired Alex Gacek of the South Carolina Stingrays, and Faille, Austin Block, Denver Manderson, Connor Gaarder, and Patrick Watling have been stalwart aids to the team. But the Solar Bears have had trouble breaking out of the defense zone with speed and fire.

This difficulty has led to other problems. As a result of their inability to put on a solid transition, they have been unable to establish an offense, and their time of puck possession and ability to generate quality shots has suffered. Players like Joe Perry and Chris Crane are deadly in scoring dirty shots from in front of the crease, but to maximize their potential, the Solar Bears will need their fast forwards to fast forward and move the puck with confidence into the offensive zone. This will all start with a solid team effort – forwards included – in the defensive end.

The matured affiliation with the Toronto Marlies should also play into Orlando’s favor. Kyle Dubas, the General Manager of the Marlies, assigned Mason Marchment to the Solar Bears on Jan. 2, and one would not be surprised to see the Marlies take advantage of the quality-rich January schedule for more development opportunities.

Above all, the Solar Bears need to enter January with a roar and a spirit of fire. The true leaders on the team should view this month as their golden opportunity, a time when they can take the initiative to inspire their cohorts. One of the strengths of Orlando is that it is stocked with seasoned players. Beyond its official veterans anchored by team captain Eric Baier, it has a handful of players-Faille, Manderson, Block, and Watling among them-who are well seasoned and primed for this type of battle. Moreover, the team has a history of bonding together and making lengthy road trips memorable. If the Solar Bears can find their footing against the Mountain Division, they should end January still breathing down the necks of the division-leading Everblades. This would put them in prime position entering the final half of the season.

Should they stumble on the Mountain, however, they will find their path a steep and rocky one.

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