ORLANDO, FL – The Amway Center was packed with 9,319 fans on Saturday night to watch the Orlando Solar Bears in their home opener against the Atlanta Gladiators. The crowd was treated to a high scoring, back-and-forth game, with the home team shooting 43 times on the opponent’s net. When the dust settled, it was the Gladiators who survived the onslaught and emerged victorious from an emotionally intense match.
Despite the 5-4 loss, the game held a number of positive takeaways both on and off the ice.
Just shy of a sell-out, the large crowd vaulted the team to second place in average attendance in the league. This is a positive start for the new DeVos family era of ownership. On the concourse, the fans were enjoying the way that Solar Bears gear had taken up residence in the Orlando Magic shops, and the cross-sport synergy is already showing good signs of taking flight.
On the ice, the offensive production is there. The Solar Bears are now averaging 38.5 shots on net, and they are getting good numbers from both seasoned players and newcomers. Chris Crane ended the game with one goal and one assist and has now tallied six points in four starts.
Rookies are lighting it up. Defenseman Jeff King got Orlando on the board in the first period with a blast from the top of the right circle, and he went on to gain a primary assist for the Solar Bears’ final score. Rookie forward Zach Stepan also made his presence felt with two assists. He now is tied for second in scoring on the team with four points.
After a shaky power play in the first period, the Solar Bears came to life with the man advantage in the second period with Josh Winquist and Max Novak both making Atlanta pay for its penalties. Though still having difficulty breaking cleanly into the offensive zone, Orlando is becoming quite sharp in their set-ups and passing once they get past the blue line. This is a positive turnaround for a team which, prior to the game, had failed to convert on its power play attempts.
Crane also noted the boost that will come from the power play successes. He said, “It was nice that our special teams helped us tonight, but we’ve got to just keep building on it.”
In the post-game press conference, head coach Drake Berehowsky was positive about the things the team is doing well and about the fan turnout, but he was grimly serious about correcting the team’s weaknesses. He said, “We didn’t play the way we were capable of playing for sixty minutes.” He was especially concerned about improving on puck control and said,
“All the [Atlanta] goals came from turnovers, and we have to be better in that area. The turnovers are what killed us, and we can’t have turnovers against a team like this.”
Atlanta got the win on five goals coming off of 19 shots, and Berehowsky warned against putting the blame on goalie Cal Heeter. He noted that turnovers and defensive breakdowns and left the netminder exposed to too many prime scoring chances that Atlanta capitalized on. Losing a game where you outshoot your opponent by a two-to-one margin stings, and Berehowsky was clearly looking to use the loss to fire up and shore up the team.
The two-game series with Atlanta finishes on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. Then, the Solar Bears will turn their attention to the Florida Everblades who sit atop the South Division with at 6-1 record. The Solar Bears and Everblades square off on Wednesday, Nov. 1, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m.