ORLANDO, Fla. – With the Jacksonville Icemen losing to the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Saturday night, the Solar Bears have clinched a playoff spot for the fourth time in their six-year history. The race is on now to see who the Solar Bears will play in the first round: Will it be their in-state nemesis the Florida Everblades or will they have the chance to face the powerhouse South Carolina Stingrays?
The answer to that question depends on whether Solar Bears can hold onto their third place spot in the South Division and whether Florida can hold onto its first place spot. Currently, the Solar Bears hold a four-point lead over the Atlanta Gladiators with both teams having four games left to play in the regular season. Meanwhile, the Everblades hold a five-point advantage over the Stingrays with both teams having seven games remaining.
The weekend’s series against the Stingrays proved to be a disappointment for the Solar Bears, as South Carolina swept the three-game set, winning two of the three games in a shootout and the third in regulation. Given that the Stingrays are the most likely opponent that the Solar Bears will face in the opening round of the playoffs, the games present some cause for concern for the team. But the tilts might also have a hidden benefit, since they should give the squad a stern wake-up call and an opportunity for some sobering review.
Wednesday’s game saw Orlando get off to a fast start, with the team scoring once in the first period then extending the lead in the third. Joe Perry gained the first goal, and J.J. Piccinich gave the Solar Bears a 2-0 lead. However, South Carolina would score two goals in 12 seconds to tie the game up at two, forcing overtime and then a shootout in which they were victorious.
Friday’s game saw a similar outcome, this time with the Stingrays scoring first. Patrick Megannety scored the goal. Orlando’s Max Novak would tie things up at one in the second period after taking a faceoff win that put the puck behind teammate Kyle Rankin’s heel. However, Orlando would once again fall in a shootout 3-2.
One bright spot in those first two games is that they showed that Orlando could contend with the potent and highly structured Stingrays squad. Sunday’s game, however, saw the Solar Bears in a slump. The only score generated was off the stick of Sean Zimmerman, a clear-out defenseman who is one of the last players you expect to light the lamp. In fact, this is Zimmerman’s first goal of the season.
The squad on Sunday was experiencing some relief from clenching its playoff spot, and this led to a notable decrease in the energy on the ice. But Berehowsky and the seasoned players like Zimmerman and Perry know that they cannot afford to enter the playoffs with a squad that is letting off the gas or with individuals who are not committed to the work.
When questioned on the results of this Sunday afternoon game, Drake Berehowsky stated,
“I didn’t like the way we played. I didn’t think we had that jump. We’ve got to figure out what’s going on now, so we’ll go back to the drawing board. We’ll watch the video, and we’ll go back and start preparing”
Zimmerman, the team captain, was on the same page with his coach. He said,
“…our goal is to win a championship, and anything less is unsatisfactory, and that’s literally how I think of it. That’s what’s expected out of this group I think, and I think today maybe we were too lackadaisical at some points and we’ll have to get that fixed.”
Heading towards the playoffs, four trouble spots in particular need of attention if the Solar Bears are going to succeed:
- Full energy and commitment from all players on the ice: The team can no longer afford to play guys who are not putting forth a total effort. There were some embarrassing moments on Sunday that were the result of low energy. Low energy players were also clearly impacting the overall team performance.
- Setting up the power play: Orlando continues to struggle to get itself set up in the offensive zone. On Sunday’s game, in particular, the Stingrays were able to exploit this weakness with easy and quick clearouts.
- Speedy transitions and zone entries: While the Solar Bears are willing to play dump-and-chase offense when required, they need to find ways to take more advantage of its speed players like Martins Dzierkals and Kale Kerbashian. This will require some robust puck pursuit and crisp passing in the defensive end to start the breakouts. Dump-ins are making the speed players less effective.
- Watch the penalties: The Solar Bears rank second in the league in penalty minutes, and the increased physicality and scrappiness has been a two-edged sword. The team needs fine-tune its approach and keep itself disciplined in this area.
The Solar Bears will be looking to return to the win column and to get itself into playoff shape when it takes on the Jacksonville Icemen at Amway Center Thursday night at 7 p.m.