ORLANDO, Fla. – After a quick road trip up to Newfoundland, the Solar Bears returned to Orlando for a five-game homestand against the Florida Everblades, Idaho Steelheads, and Atlanta Gladiators. There is still inconsistency between games, but the Solar Bears continue to find offensive power in players like Troy Bourke, Colby McAuley, Otto Somppi, and Mitch Hults. The Solar Bears are so packed with players, in fact, that Head Coach Drake Berehowsky has the pleasant burden of having to decide which players to suit up for a game. This is a pleasant shift from last month, when he was short on forwards and was tapping defensemen like Mike Monfredo to complete his line.
With goaltender Martin Ouellette being recalled to the Syracuse Crunch, the Solar Bears have been relying heavily on AHL goaltender Connor Ingram, who has been steady between the pipes and regularly shows the ability to keep the Solar Bears in the game when his team fulfills its assignments on defense. In addition, rookie Clint Windsor proved to be a force to be reckoned with in his ECHL debut, maintaining an above .900 save percentage throughout his time with Orlando.
The keys to Orlando’s playoff future hinge on consistency and special teams. The three-game series against the Idaho Steelheads is telling. In the first game on Saturday night, the Solar Bears were unstoppable and went on a 6-2 rout. But the fire and precision dropped in the next two games. Costly turnovers and defensive breakdowns produced two consecutive losses, and Orlando had trouble finding any footing in those matches.
The Playoff Picture
In terms of the playoff situation, Orlando is currently ranked second in the rough South Division with 73 points overall, putting them three points ahead of Jacksonville with one game in hand. When questioned on whether or not he believes his team is “playoff ready”, Berehowsky stated,
“I’m happy with the progress we’ve made; I like the team we’ve assembled. As far as improvements, I think we have to improve in every area. I think that our specialty teams need some work, but overall, I think the guys are adjusting and they’re learning how to play within the structure.”
Penalty Minutes and Special Teams
One of the distinctions for the Solar Bears is the number of penalty minutes they have gathered this season in comparison to other teams in their division. While the other teams in the South have under 1000 penalty minutes, Orlando has 1130 penalty minutes, making them fourth in the ECHL in PIMs. While that is a sign of the Solar Bears’ physicality, it certainly doesn’t bode well with Orlando’s lackluster penalty kill, which ranks near the bottom of the league. When questioned on the penalty minutes, Berehowsky stated,
“Well, we want to be a physical team as well. We don’t want to take the penalties, but we want to be physical. We know most teams are physical, and you have to match that physicality every night. It’s a hard way to play, but I think our guys are buying into whatever they can do.”
Special teams will be the key area to watch in the closing weeks of the season. On the ice, the Solar Bears are actively looking for answers, with a notably more aggressive approach to the penalty kill. But the goal is proving to be elusive. On the Sunday loss to the Idaho Steelheads, the Solar Bears gave up two short-handed goals, and they now lead the league in that category. They are also at the bottom of the league when it comes to the penalty kill.
Moving Toward the Postseason
If they can start to shore up the special teams, the Solar Bears will be a formidable force in the playoffs. Their offensive strength is undeniable; they are fourth in the ECHL in goals per game with a 3.53 average, and they have scoring threats in all their lines. The defensive side is notable for its firepower. Blueliner Cody Donaghey is ninth in the ECHL with 38 points, and Michael Brodzinski is not far behind with 35.
Consistency is also a key factor. The Solar Bears still have the upper hand on the Jacksonville Icemen in the race for the number two spot in the South Division. But if they continue to produce roller coaster performances, they will quickly find themselves relinquishing that spot.
The Solar Bears complete their five-game homestand on Thursday at 7 p.m. EDT with a tilt against the Atlanta Gladiators. Then, they head off to Estero to face the Florida Everblades at 7 p.m. on Saturday. All the games are crucial at this point. The Solar Bears want to make it deep into the playoffs this year, and to accomplish that, winning the home ice in the first round is important.