ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando Solar Bears entered game five of the South Division Finals with the objective of putting up a valiant fight and giving the home crowd a memory to be proud of. In terms of showing guts, resilience, and hustle, they did not disappoint.
Physical Play Becomes a Double-Edged Sword
The Solar Bears playoff hopes came to an end as they were defeated by the Florida Everblades 5-2 on Sunday afternoon. But, as has become the habit for the Solar Bears, they went down in a game filled with drama, ironies, and curious coincidences.
Even before the game started, there was an eerie sense of deja vu. The Solar Bears started the season in October with two of its key veterans — team captain Sean Zimmerman and Darryl Bootland who had both played for the 2017 Kelly Cup Championship team, the Colorado Eagles. And the Sunday game had Bootland and Zimmerman again missing from the bench: Bootland decided earlier in the year to hang up his skates due to injuries, and Zimmerman was serving a one-game suspension.
With Zimmerman out, the Solar Bears knew it had to play a spirited, physical game to keep its playoff hopes alive. Ironically, Orlando’s intensity is also what spelled doom for the team. After playing the opening minutes of the first period back on its heels, the Solar Bears came to life. Mike Monfredo added to the energy by delivering strong, clean check to Nelson Armstrong. Seconds later, the smallest of the Solar Bears, Martins Dzierkals (5’ 11”, 175 lbs.) continued the strong play with a check delivered to defenseman Gus Young along the board behind the Everblades net. Dzierkals was pulling up and turning his side to Young to follow the puck which was squirting behind the net. Dzierkals’ momentum pushed the Everblades defenseman, who was turning in the opposite direction, hard into the boards.
Dzierkals was hit with a five-minute major plus a game misconduct penalty for boarding, which sent the Everblades on a four-on-three power-play. The calmness after the check was surreal: Dzierkals skated peacefully to the sin bin, the Everblades players were orderly, the referees conferred, and then a surprised Dzierkals was escorted off the ice. The Everblades managed to capitalize twice during the major penalty, with scores by Mitchell Heard and Spencer Smallman. With the Solar Bears reeling, they added another goal off the stick of Michael Kirkpatrick for good measure. That proved to be the game-winner.
The Solar Bears showed energy in both the second and third periods, and Chris LeBlanc had two goals to his credit to try to keep Orlando in the hunt. But the opening deficit proved to be too much to overcome.
Despite the loss, the Solar Bears ended the season with some high notes:
For the first time in ECHL franchise history, the team managed to make it into the second round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs with an opening-round sweep of the South Carolina Stingrays.
Head coach Drake Berehowsky proved to be steady and effective at the helm of the club. Despite rebuilding the team from the ground up (only Chris Crane and Joe Perry played last year for the Solar Bears), he guided the team to a historic year for the club. Also notable is the way that the owners (RDV Sports) and front office allowed Berehowsky to do his job.
Hunter Fejes was a mid-season acquisition for the Solar Bears, and his trade paid dividends in the playoffs. Over the nine games, Fejes tallied nine points with three goals and six assists.
Despite being down after the first period, the Solar Bears never gave up. Despite being outshot in the opening period by an eighteen-to-six margin, Orlando managed to outshoot the Everblades 42 to 38 by the end of the game.
The goaltending of Cal Heeter was sizzling in the semi-final series against the South Carolina Stingrays, and he stood atop the ECHL in both save percentage and goals-against average in the opening round of the playoffs. And, when the Everblades put Orlando in a hole early in the South Division Finals, Mackenzie Skapski was ready to answer the bell, leading the Solar Bears to their sole victory over the Everblades on Friday night.
The Post-Game Assessment
When asked about how playing without Zimmerman affected the Solar Bears’ play, Chris LeBlanc stated,
“Yeah, Zim’s a heck of a leader. Obviously, the locker room is not the same without him, but it happens. The league made a call on that, and you’ve got to just go with what the league did with that.”
Obviously, a huge part of the Solar Bears franchise has been the fanbase which turned out in solid numbers during the playoffs. Orlando ranks second in the ECHL in average playoff attendance at 6662. When asked if he had anything to say to the fans for the upcoming season, Berehowsky stated,
“I’d like to thank the fans: They’ve been awesome all year, and they’ve supported us. It’s been an up and down year, but in the end we finished in a good spot. We made it through the first round, and hopefully we’ll just keep building towards getting a better and better team making it further and further into the playoffs. Next year—we’re going to start building right away. We’ve got a couple pieces already: I thought some of the young kids played really well, and we’re going to get a fast team that can be physical and score some goals.”
While the season has ended for the Solar Bears, things are already in motion for the next campaign, and the Sin Bin will keep you current with the news. Expect an analysis of the Orlando Solar Bears schedule when it is released. Also, there will be some predictions about who the team might retain and what the needs will be for next year’s run.
And, of course, there’s the lingering question: What does next year have in store for the Orlando Solar Bears in terms of an NHL affiliate? There is no official word about that yet, but expect that story to develop over the offseason.