ORLANDO, Fla. – The month of December has been a bumpy road for the Orlando Solar Bears, and inconsistency on defense and special teams has been the main culprit for the dips. Christmas is approaching, and if the Solar Bears want to wind up on Santa’s nice list, they will have to dig deep.
Having won four and lost two over the first half of the month, the team continues into a Monday’s contest against the South Carolina Stingrays facing a grueling stretch that involves eight games in fourteen days. All of those games are against South Division rivals. If the team wants to show itself worthy of the playoffs, this stretch could prove to be one of the defining pivot points of the season.
In terms of the ECHL South Division, the Solar Bears currently find themselves in fourth place. The South Carolina Stingrays and Jacksonville Icemen hold the second and third slots, and a strong end to the month could find Orlando leapfrogging those teams. Needless to say, a weak ending to the month would leave the team with some perilous climbing to do.
One development that is going to help is the return of Martin Ouellette to the crease. He has Orlando fans breathing a sigh of relief, as the team’s other two goalies, Corbin Boes and Hayden Stewart, have struggled to find their groove. Consider this statistic: Boes and Stewart collectively have a 5-6-1 record, while Ouellette is 8-3-1. Ouellette’s presence between the pipes was a key component of the team’s 4-2 victory against Jacksonville last Wednesday when he made 29 saves on 31 shots. He followed that with a terrific performance against the Atlanta Gladiators on Sunday afternoon when he made 30 saves on 31 shots.
The continuing major concern is the Solar Bears’ penalty kill record. Orlando is ranked dead last in the league in both the home and overall penalty kill categories. The team has shown more discipline on the ice in recent weeks, and less time in the penalty box has helped, but head coach Drake Berehowsky is continuing to give special teams a top priority. One bright spot: On Wednesday, Jacksonville failed to convert on all its power plays.
In terms of other statistics, the Solar Bears’ power play unit is sputtering, ranking 21st overall at 13.5 percent. Solar Bears fans have been scratching their heads as to why the special teams have been such a problem this year, considering the Solar Bears acquired assistant coach Marc LeFebvre who was especially known for having a very good penalty kill unit in his time as an assistant coach for the Cincinnati Cyclones. Berehowsky has shown frustration with his team in this area, but he has also kept his patient, diligent approach, and not panicking.
Despite all of the concerns, there have been several positives with the Solar Bears. One of the major positives with the team is the advent of rookie players such as Corey Kalk, who was a key factor in Orlando’s victory against the Jacksonville Icemen with two goals. And Mathieu Foget is another rookie who has been in the mix with 14 points in 20 games played.
Player movement is proving especially difficult for the Solar Bears this season, and that area is front and center this week. ECHL transactions show that Brady Shaw, the team’s top point scorer, was suspended by the team on Saturday, Dec. 15, and offensive powerhouses Brent Pedersen and Troy Bourke have both been moved up to the AHL ranks this month. That leaves the team without its top three scorers of the season, though the sizzling Hunter Fejes returned has returned to the team. The AHL’s Rockford IceHogs announced on Saturday that they had released him from his PTO. Fejes made a quick trip down from Rockford and was on the ice for the Sunday afternoon tilt.
Other positives include more community outreach and fan involvement, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning affiliation. Orlando currently ranks fourth in average attendance (5410). Between now and January 3, the Solar Bears will be playing eight home games, then it won’t be until February 6 that the team returns to the Amway Center. So Berehowsky and his squad will be looking to put extra sizzle onto the ice to reward the fan support and those attendance numbers.
Another factor leading to bumps this season has been the success of Solar Bears who have moved into the ranks of the AHL this year. Defenseman Nolan Valleau started the season in Orlando, but he signed a PTO with Orlando’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, in October, and this has now turned into a full AHL contract with the team. Valleau began playing with Orlando in the 2017-18 season, the final year of the Orlando-Toronto affiliation, and he played at the 2018 ECHL All-Star Classic in Indianapolis. On the Solar Bears website, Valleau talked to Orlando’s Director of Communications and Broadcasting Jesse Liebman about his experience with the Crunch:
“They’re a really professional organization and they treat their players really well…They’re really good at communicating and will tell you exactly what they want from you, what they expect and what you can bring to the table every night for the team.”
The Solar Bears continue their holiday season marathon on Monday night when they take on the South Carolina Stingrays at 7 p.m. at the Amway Center. With the Solar Bears in a locked in a tough battle with this South Division foe, they need to consider this game to involve a four-point swing. A win could mean pulling to within two points of the Stingrays, while a loss would drop them to six points behind. Berehowsky will be looking for a strong start and some consistent, physical defensive play throughout the game.
Follow Chad Boerth on Twitter at @SinBinSolarBear.