ORLANDO, Fla. – Orlando head coach Drake Berehowsky’s patience and persistence are paying off. The Solar Bears’ victory over the Jacksonville Icemen on Saturday completed a sweep of the series, and they now have a three-game win streak. The return of goalie Martin Ouellette from the Syracuse Crunch (the team’s AHL affiliate) has helped to shore up the team’s defense, as has the additions of Akim Aliu and Alexander Kuqali to the blue line.
To add to the Solar Bears’ fortune, this surge comes in a week when rivals in the South Division are sputtering. The Florida Everblades have lost their last two games, and the South Carolina Stingrays have won only one of their last three tilts. The Solar Bears have grabbed third place in the division and are one point behind the Stingrays.
During their nine-game road trip in January, the Solar Bears gained access to veteran Aliu and the seasoned Kuqali. Kuqali has made an immediate impact. In the game on Friday, he tallied an assist, earning himself the third star of the game. Aliu, meanwhile, brings over a decade of professional hockey experience to the team. Berehowsky will be leaning on him to provide leadership and presence on the ice.
When questioned as to how he thinks he will fit in with the rest of the team, Aliu stated,
“Obviously I’m a veteran guy, I think I’m the oldest guy here. So I have to help out in any fashion I can. I expect a lot out of myself,” Aliu said. “I want to be the best defenseman in the league. Drake knows that…He said I have every opportunity to help this team, so I have to be good in every facet. I have to kill, I have to play power play. Probably my minutes are going to pick up along the way, so I have to be good in all facets.”
In addition to the experienced professionals, some rookie faces on the Solar Bears are having success of their own. Forward Jonne Tammela has been a huge contributor to the Solar Bears as of late, scoring a goal on Friday and chipping in with an assist on Saturday. Dylan Fitze is also making a name for himself, with two goals and an assist to his credit in the series against the Icemen.
The Solar Bears could still use more offensive firepower. The spate of call-ups and departures earlier in the season has given the team an uphill climb. But the young forwards are showing steady development and are taking advantage of their opportunities. So, if the team can continue to play smart on the defensive end, the team will continue to gain traction.
With the playoffs rapidly approaching, one has to wonder whether or not Berehowsky sees his team as a playoff contender. When questioned on this, Berehowsky stated:
“We always want to keep improving on everything, but … I’d like to be able to tighten up our defense. I think defense wins championships, and we have got to make sure we don’t tighten the pressure on Marty [Ouellette] with breakaways, so we have to tighten up that way, and we can always work on our offensive stuff, scoring more goals and driving that net a little harder.”
The Solar Bears’ next game is Wednesday night against the all-powerful Florida Everblades in Estero. Then, the Solar Bears return to Amway Center on Friday to once again face off against the Jacksonville Icemen.
With a 3-0 win, momentum and plenty of confidence surrounding them, Orlando will be looking to sting Florida. Although they may top the league in points, the Everblades have had difficulties this year against the Solar Bears. Orlando currently holds a 3-1-1-0 record against its in-state rival, and they will be motivated to keep its win streak intact. Keys for the Solar Bears will be a quick start to the game and a disciplined, aggressive defense to keep the firepower of the Everblades in check.