ORLANDO, Fla. – After a briefly rocky start to the season, the Orlando Solar Bears are finally starting to come together and are pulling off wins. The squad now has a three-game win streak in progress, and have a golden opportunity to extend that this weekend. Win streaks are a feat that last year’s team had a difficult time achieving. The Solar Bears have managed to claw into second place in the brutal South Division, right behind the currently undefeated Jacksonville Icemen.
What a difference a week makes. The Solar Bears lost their home opener against the Atlanta Gladiators and then split with the ensuing home series against the South Carolina Stingrays. After then losing their first away game of the year to the Jacksonville Icemen, some Orlando fans were grumbling about the 1-3 record. Never mind that head coach Drake Berehowsky was coming off a historic season last year that took the team into the second round of the Kelly Cup playoffs.
Berehowsky, however, has kept an even keel, and the team responded with a pay-back win in Atlanta followed by a decisive 3-0 shutout of the Florida Everblades. They capped the home-and-home series with Florida with a 5-4 overtime win in Estero that saw the Solar Bears dramatically coming back from a two-goal deficit in the final frame.
While this is great news for the Solar Bears, there are some factors that are concerning for the team in the long run. Heavy penalty minutes and an inconsistent defense are areas that are troubling. However, there are still plenty of positives for the team. Here’s a breakdown.
Martin Ouellette is starting to shine between the pipes for the Solar Bears. He recorded his first shutout on Friday’s home game, and his save percentage is now above .900. His goals-against average is above the 3.00 mark, but with continued help in the defensive zone, expect that number to improve as the season develops.
Hunter Fejes is sizzling on the offensive end. He leads the league with three short-handed goals, which also ties a franchise season record, and it’s still only October. He’s averaging one goal a game and is tied with Braylon Shmyr and Caleb Herbert for the league lead in total goals. Last year, the Solar Bears essentially gave up three players to get Fejes, and it looks like that big gamble is paying dividends.
Berehowsky has done a notable job keeping the team motivated, even through the rough patch in the opening weeks of the season. Looking from the outside, the Solar Bears organization seems to have all the pieces working. As he did early last year, Berehowsky has a vision for the long season. He is patient and keeps perspective, and he is allowed to do his job. The team hasn’t panicked, and it hasn’t allowed itself to be distracted by outside noise. Berehowsky’s philosophy involves everyone taking care of their specific assignments, and it looks like that philosophy runs through the organization.
The Trouble Spots
Despite all of the positives, there are a few factors that are concerning. One of the major concerns is the penalty minute situation. On their opening night against the Atlanta Gladiators, the Solar Bears suffered a five-minute major for boarding when they were trying to mount a comeback, and the loss of momentum ended up costing them the game. Those types of penalties contributed to the opening week missteps. Currently, the Solar Bears rank second in the league with 151 total PIM. Orlando has been much more disciplined in its latest games, and that trend needs to continue.
Another concern is the penalty kill. High penalty minutes with a poor penalty kill is a recipe for disaster. The Solar Bears have had difficulties clearing the puck when down a man, and early on, this resulted in too many second-chance opportunities for their opponents. Orlando currently ranks twenty-fourth in the league with a 74.6 penalty kill percentage. They are showing improvements, but they still have a ways to go.
The Solar Bears have an offense that can win games, but they need to maintain a cohesive, disciplined defense to succeed. In the opening games, team members were finding themselves out of position, and there were lapses in assignments. They also were hesitant in deciding on how aggressively to pursue the puck. Here again, the team has made steady improvements. In the first four games, they had 5.25 goals against per game. In the last three games, that average was 1.67 goals against per game. Nolan Valleau was just called up to the Syracuse Crunch (Orlando’s AHL affiliate) this week, so that will put extra pressure on the defense to keep away from turnovers and to break things out of the defensive zone.
The Solar Bears go on another road trip on Saturday and Sunday as they face off against the struggling Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Orlando cannot afford to take matters lightly, as they can expect a Greenville team hungry to get some wins on its home ice. The Solar Bears meanwhile have a chance to build on its win streak and put the South Division on notice.