ORLANDO, Fla – The Orlando Solar Bears opened their season on Saturday night against the Atlanta Gladiators, and they hosted an energetic sellout crowd of 9049 to whom they delivered some exciting hockey. They then followed up with a two-game series against the South Carolina Stingrays on Monday and Tuesday.
The opening home stand showed that the Solar Bears have a young squad which is capable of brilliance, but it is a team which is not yet seasoned. As with last year, Head Coach Drake Berehowsky knows that he needs to show patience, but he is also looking to address some key trouble spots.
The first? Slow starts are again a problem for the Solar Bears. While Atlanta came ready to play from the opening faceoff on Saturday, Orlando took many minutes to get into the groove. Though Atlanta was winning the shots-on-goal race, Orlando goalie Martin Ouellette weathered the storm and held the game scoreless through the opening frame.
A slow start to the second period, however, made the Solar Bears pay, and they fell behind 0-2 after goals by Atlanta’s Matt Lane and Tyler Moy. Then, a miracle happened: the Solar Bears’ Brady Shaw and Hunter Fejes scored two short-handed goals within a thirty second-span. Unfortunately, their momentum would be shot shortly after, when the Solar Bears received a five-minute major which resulted in Atlanta gaining the game-winning goal.
In response to Saturday’s loss, coach Drake Berehowsky stated,
“I didn’t like the way we played. I thought we took too many penalties; I didn’t think we played with enough pace as well. We had way too many turnovers, which led to goals against.”
Monday’s game got off to a much better start with Orlando scoring the first goal this time. Even though the Stingrays did manage to tie the game, the Solar Bears took a three-goal lead heading into the final period. When the Stingrays scored two goals just five minutes in, Berehowsky called a timeout, which got his team back into the game.
The rest of the period saw Orlando hang on to eke out the narrow win. When questioned as to why he called a timeout, Berehowsky stated,
“I just said we have to relax. I think guys were getting uptight. You know, any time you’re up like that and teams come back, you don’t want to push the panic button. We’ve got to relax on the bench. You just have to get back to work and do the detail things that we’ve talked about.”
The Tuesday tilt against the Stingrays was almost a mirror reversal of Monday’s game as South Carolina got off to the races when Grant Besse sniped a score only 37 seconds into the game. Orlando was able to keep pace with tallies by Brent Pederson and Shaw, but the Stingrays broke the game open with four unanswered goals in the second period. Orlando still put up a fight in the third, but the four-goal deficit heading into the final frame was too much to overcome and the Solar Bears fell 5-6.
Heading forward, the team needs to attend to three key areas:
In two of the first three tilts, the Solar Bears opened games by playing back on their heels. While they were able to keep equal in the goal count for a while, ultimately those slow openings put the team into holes which were too deep to climb out. The Solar Bears need to develop a more secure and energetic opening, and Berehowsky needs to find the lines which will ensure some stability in the first minutes of the frames. When they opened with a strong start, as they did on Monday night, Orlando proved to be more consistent throughout the entire game.
Disciplined Defensive Pursuit
The Solar Bears have a 4.67 goals against average for their first three games, and this average is going to make wins difficult. Berehowsky has a sound defensive philosophy, but the players need to commit to it. Discipline and more energetic pressure on the puck are keys. The Solar Bears have allowed opponents too much time in the defensive zone, and they are allowing too many second-chance opportunities. They have also been ineffective in breaking out of their end of the rink. Teams which have an aggressive forecheck, like the Stingrays, will be quick to exploit this weakness.
Though it is not tracked as an official stat, time in the offensive zone has been lacking for the Solar Bears. They have made some risky passes across the neutral zone, and they are also giving up the puck too quickly in the offensive zone instead of being willing to grind along the boards to find opportunities. Here again, more discipline and more commitment to assignments are critical.
Coming up: The Solar Bears depart for their first road trip of the year. They play at Jacksonville against the Icemen on Friday night and then will be looking for some revenge in Atlanta against the Gladiators on Saturday night.