ESTERO, FL – While the Orlando Solar Bears stayed in town last Saturday introducing their fans to the team at the Crooked Can Brewing Company’s Annual Oktoberfest, I headed down to Estero, Florida, to scout out two of the team’s South Division rivals–the Florida Everblades and the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. It looks like the division is once again going to be tough. The Everblades, in particular, are going to be a punishing rival.

The Everblades came out on top in both games and now command a first place lead in the division by two points. This has been a familiar story: Their team has won 10 season openers and nine home openers in a row. Yes, the season is very early, but the Everblades have a habit of positioning themselves at the head of the pack and making the Solar Bears and other contenders play catch-up.

On opening night, the Swamp Rabbits dominated for almost 58 minutes. They took a 2-0 lead heading into the third, and midway through the frame, many of the home fans started to leave, thinking the Blades would be shut out. Seemingly on the ropes, Coach Brad Ralph pulled goalie Anthony Peters, and the special team let it rip. Zack Kamrass lit the lamp with 2:07 left after taking a feed from Matt Berry.

After a faceoff, the Everblades hit the repeat button: They took the offensive zone, Peters again came off the ice, and Mike Aviani sniped a shot into the net with Berry again credited with the assist.

The game seemed destined for overtime, but Matt Mackenzie decided the Everblades had had enough fun for the night and put in the game-winning goal with 18 seconds left.

While game one spotlighted the special teams grit of the in-state rival, game two showcased the Everblades the Solar Bears have come to know and love . . . and hate. Scoring once in the first frame (Dalton Smith), twice in the second (Levko Koper and John McCarron), and twice in the third (Levko Koper and Michael Kirkpatrick), they took an easy 5-3 win over Greenville and completed a mini-series sweep in their home opening weekend.

While Brad Ralph might be the new head coach and many of the faces in the uniforms (even the uniforms themselves) have changed, the team’s style of play remains eerily familiar. Throughout the game, they kept the Swamp Rabbits in their burrows. This was a result of an aggressive forecheck, few penalties, solid position defense, and consistent puck control.

There are a few things the Solar Bears might want to look out for when battling the Blades throughout the season–one of them being Florida’s mighty forecheck. The Everblades’ forecheck has one overriding goal–to frustrate and tire out the opposing team. It might not result in turnovers, but it had a noticeable effect on the Swamp Rabbits in game two, and will likely have an effect on the Bears unless they can counter it with controlled defensive zone exits. Long, cross-ice passes are not going to do the trick, as the Everblades consistently keeps its defenders disciplined and in position.

On the offensive end, the Bears will need to have an aggressive (but not penalty-costing) style of play. The Swamp Rabbits were out-muscled by the Everblades in game two, and they failed to put sufficient traffic in front of the goalie Daniel Altshuller. While much of the Everblades team has changed, its goalies are well-known factors for the Solar Bears which they should look to exploit.

Another thing to watch out for would be the Everblades’ puck control, which inevitably leads to a decided shots-on-goal advantage. The team has speed, and despite the player turnover, their passing and chemistry became increasingly sharp in game two. Here again, the Solar Bears will need to counter with some disciplined defense, effective checking, and a ramped-up transition game. Building some quality time grinding it out and cycling in the offensive zone is key.

Playing for a full 60 minutes is vital. The Bears don’t want to become victims of another late-game roasting, and Ralph’s team demonstrated in game one that they can pour on the heat when the other team decides to play soft.

The Everblades will enter Saturday’s home opener at the Amway Center with confidence and a sense of purpose, and the Solar Bears need to start the season strong, sharp, and with a growl. If not, they will see the Everblades grabbing up six early points, and we know it will be hard to wrestle that lead from those mighty jaws.

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