ORLANDO, FL – One of the curious mysteries of minor league hockey is how teams can maintain the same character and trends despite an extensive player turnover.
In the case of the Solar Bears this past week, two ghosts came back to haunt the team: The club came off a long break looking flat, and it struggled to get an edge on home ice. After a commendable showing in its road trip out west to Colorado and Alaska, Orlando dropped both its games in a home-and-home series with the Everblades this past weekend. It is clear that the Blades are the more dominant ECHL team in the state of Florida (which makes sense since they are the Florida Everblades).
The Solar Bears have developed a habit – a habit of being kind to visiting teams. While away teams find it difficult to get wins on the Everblades’ home ice, they find easier skating in Orlando’s den. This is odd, as many would expect a team to be better on home ice, especially a team with such a great fanbase like the Solar Bears.
What’s Plaguing the Team
The way I see it, there are three things that the Solar Bears have struggled with in the past years:
- Home Ice Wins: The return of Drake Berehowsky as head coach has significantly improved the team’s ability to win on home ice, but the club would have liked a better outcome on the Saturday match. That game featured an attendance of 8,140, and the organization put on quite a show. The intermissions were jam packed with entertainment including a wiener dog race, mites on ice, and the always-popular audience “bear-aoke” sing-alongs. The Amway Center crowd was rocking (thanks in part to the announcer Paco Lopez) and having a grand time. Given the numbers, the club would have loved to have capped the evening with a victory. The Solar Bears were never really in the running during the game, however, and the team will be looking to give its fans more to cheer about this week. But that will be difficult since the opponent will be the Allen Americans.
- Lackluster Play after a Long Break: The Solar Bears often suffer from time off. During the road trip out west, they seemed to get stronger and more focused and capped things with an offensive blitz in their final match against the Alaska Aces when they tallied 9 goals. But the All-Star Break seemed to take the sharp edge off the team and put a break on its momentum.
- Slow Starts: The most painful of the three weak spots, in my opinion, is the Solar Bears’ slow starts to the games. Take for example the game against the Everblades on Saturday – the team allowed Florida to score three goals in the first 10 minutes of the opening frame, two of which were goals by special teams. The final score of the game was 5-2, so in a way, the Bears had let the Everblades score the game-winning goal in the opening minutes before they were even on the board.
What the Team Needs to Do to Improve
Shore up the Special Teams: After a power play drought, Orlando had made improvements in the special teams, but the matches against the Everblades revealed that the club still has much work to do in this area. The fact that they allowed the Everblades to score once on the power play and once short-handed on Saturday is quite scary, considering they Solar Bears are about to go up against the Americans, who have the largest number of penalty minutes in the league.
Start Strong: The Solar Bears have slipped into a habit of starting games out slow. This slow start is what allows skilled teams like the Everblades to strike early and often. If the team were to start out strong and play consistently throughout the game, then they would be able to take advantage of their formidable offensive potential which we saw in Alaska.
Settle the Lines: The Bears have faced a continuous stream of call-ups and reassignments. Most disruptive this month is the move of Eric Faille to the Toronto Marlies (Orlando’s AHL affiliate), and the even more recent announcement that Nikolas Brouillard was called up will create yet another hole. To add to these woes, goalie Ryan Massa was out for a number of games during the road trip, and when he returned to the ice on Saturday, he showed signs of rust. It didn’t help that Denver Manderson was also a scratch. We have seen glimmers of strength in the play of recent arrivals, but Berehowsky and assistant coach John Snowden need to get the team to cohere quickly with all the new pieces being added.
A Serious Need for Speed: While Berehowsky has sometimes favored defensive strength, there has been a steady draining of the quick skaters from the roster. I have mentioned this before as an issue, and now with Faille gone, this need has become even more pressing.
The Solar Bears face the Allen Americans — the defending ECHL champions — on Thursday and Sunday, and they will need to be in top form if they want to earn points, which they desperately need. With Orlando’s losses this past week, the South Carolina Stingrays pulled even with Solar Bears in the South Division, and the Solar Bears, Stingrays, and Greenville Swamp Rabbits are in a nearly dead three-way tie for second place – or fourth place, depending on how you want to look at it.