ORLANDO, FL – The Orlando Solar Bears fared decently in their opening road trip, winning two out of their three games. Both these games have been overtime wins, which is surprising considering the team’s record in overtime last season. Last year, the Solar Bears went into overtime 14 times. Eight of those games were decided in the 3-on-3 overtime period itself, and in those instances, Orlando won only once. So within two weeks, the team has doubled its number of overtime wins. They are now tied with the Reading Royals in that category.
But all is not rosy in the land of special teams. The Solar Bears have yet to score a power-play goal despite 21 opportunities and are tied for last in the league when it comes to power play percentage. Oddly enough, they share the basement in this category with the Reading Royals. The Quad City Mallards are the third team looking to convert on the man advantage
Power plays sputtered for the Solar Bears last year, and this is a crucial puzzle piece head coach Drake Berehowsky needs to address. It is hard to see any team making a serious playoff run without a power play threat. To add salt the wound, Orlando has so far suffered two short-handed goals against when playing a man up.
The culprits accounting for this problem are a lack of speed and some imprecise passing. While the Solar Bears are showing signs of improvement in breaking into the zone and being more defensive, there is a lack of quickness that the team had had in years past when they had nimble players like Jacob Cepis and Alex Gacek to depend upon.
One key ahead will be more effective breakouts. In the opening road trip, the Solar Bears ran into difficulties getting the puck moving up the ice, and this sometimes left them back on their heels defending their net for extended periods. One hopeful sign of change occurred in the closing minutes of the Sunday game in Allen when Mike Monfredo pinned his player against the backboard and then used his long reach to pass the puck. This started the breakout that eventually resulted in the game-winning goal. That goal came off the stick of Josh Winquist, who showed that he could turn on the jets when he ducked behind all three skaters to get the puck in the net.
One other worry spot is the goalie scramble that has occurred. In the opening game against the Jacksonville Icemen, Cal Heeter was injured during the second period, and Matt Hackett answered the bell for the final frame. With Heeter placed on reserve, the team looked to Kasimir Kaskisuo to step in after he was sent down from the Toronto Marlies, Orlando’s AHL affiliate. After the Texas round-up, however, Kaskisuo was called back up to Toronto and then immediately loaned to the Chicago Wolves.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Hackett has been suspended by Orlando. The team’s website states that the former NHL goalie has opted “to pursue opportunities outside of the ECHL.” There was much enthusiasm about the Hackett and Heeter one-two punch at the start of the season, but the team is now dealing with some uncertainty. Fortunately, Heeter has been put back onto the roster. So he seems to have recovered, and expect him to start this weekend against the Atlanta Gladiators.
The Cincinnati Cyclones owe Orlando a future consideration as a result of the trade for Austin Block, and the Cyclones currently have three goalies on their roster, one of whom is former Florida Everblades goalie Anthony Peters. That netminder bore the brunt of an infamous “Tiny Peters” chant that left the Amway Center in stitches last year. Orlando fans, however, know that Peters is a solid netminder who could provide some stability behind the defense.
Atlanta will come into Orlando on Saturday still looking for a win after suffering four straight losses at the hands of the Florida Everblades. The Gladiators will also be bringing plenty of ghosts from the past. Most notably, the Solar Bears will face Gacek, a nimble forward who was traded along with a future consideration last year in return for the high scoring Justin Buzzeo. With Buzzeo now in Europe, Orlando will have to deal with the lightning-quick young gun playing for the other side.
But Gacek is just the tip of the iceberg. Taylor Doherty, Chase Witala, Lindsay Sparks, Ben Danford, and Alexandre Carrier are all former Solar Bears players from previous seasons. In a way, the home opener will sort of be a match between this year’s Solar Bears team and players from the past.
Going into the home opener on Saturday, Orlando might want briefly to remember that last year Atlanta handed the Solar Bears two stinging defeats during Halloween season. The club will be gearing up to serve up some candy to its fans with some wins this year.
Above all, the Amway Center audience should expect to see something very different from the opening puck drop. Essentially, only two players, Chris Crane and Joe Perry, are left from last year’s core. Crane currently sits atop the team’s scoring category with four points, so all signs are pointing to continued solid production from those two. But the fans should also be looking out for some rookies and Marlies contracted players for scoring output.
On the blue line, there is a rugged and physical defensive core, featuring such seasoned players as Monfredo, Adam Phillips, Sam Jardine, and Sean Zimmerman. They will be bringing a new heavy style of play to the club. With the emphasis on defense, the motto for the Solar Bears this year might well be “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
The Solar Bears take on the Atlanta Gladiators at 7 p.m. on Saturday and at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday. The following weekend, they face their in-state nemesis the Florida Everblades on Wednesday at 7 p.m. and on Saturday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.