ORLANDO, Fla. – While the Orlando Solar Bears may not riding any long winning streaks, they are nonetheless putting division-leading teams on notice. This past weekend, they took two out of three games against the Newfoundland Growlers. That follows on the heels of a similar feat against the Florida Everblades the previous week.
The Solar Bears have now faced the North Division and South Division leaders on consecutive weekends, and they have come out on top both times. For the season, Orlando now holds a 5-3-1-0 record against the Everblades and a 3-2-0-0 record against the Growlers. While the Jacksonville Icemen are hot contenders for the second place spot in the South Division, Orlando currently holds a two-point advantage with four games in hand. The state of Florida now boasts the top three teams of the South Division.
In other news, the Solar Bears have had quite an eventful week as far as roster changes are concerned. For starters, rookie forward Corey Kalk was traded to the Wichita Thunder to complete a trade deal the Solar Bears had made November 27 in exchange for forward Matt Schmalz.
The Solar Bears also received goalie Connor Ingram, who was reassigned to the Solar Bears by the Tampa Bay Lightning (Orlando’s NHL affiliate). The 21-year-old netminder was rock solid in the net against the Growlers and the Solar Bears have repeatedly served up a stable of netminders who can give their team the opportunity to win.
The Solar Bears also saw the arrival of forward Troy Bourke, while rookie sensation Brent Pedersen and goaltender Martin Ouellette both received call-ups. Bourke wasted no time in making an impact upon his return. In Sunday’s tilt against the Growlers, he had a three-point game which included the game-winning goal in the shootout.
Other notable offensive performers include Colby McAuley, who gained a hat-trick in the Saturday evening game. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Otto Somppi has continued to earn the spotlight for his creative stickhandling. On March 1, the forward appeared on the ESPN highlight reel for his “Michigan goal” against the Everblades, and in Sunday’s game against the Growlers, he came through in the clutch by scoring in the third round of the shoot-out to keep Orlando in the hunt. That goal involved tucking the puck under the pads of netminder Michael Garteig.
Finally, the Solar Bears were active as the trade deadline approached and acquired Shaquille Merasty from the Rapid City Rush in a three-way trade that also included the Fort Wayne Komets.
Despite all the recent roster changes, head coach Drake Berehowsky is only focused on one thing, and that is winning as many games as possible to secure his team a playoff spot. He said,
“I think we’re just trying to play a solid game for 60 minutes. We don’t want to change the way we’re playing, and we just had some fortunate bounces and we’ll take them…” Berehowsky said. “I think we prepare the same way every game, and whether it’s Florida or Jacksonville or South Carolina, we realize it’s going to be a battle, and it’s a tight competition. So we prepare our guys the same way every night no matter who we play.”
If the team is going to make the playoffs this year, one thing that has to improve is the special teams. While the Solar Bears’ overall power play record puts them at 15th with a 16.7 percentage, their home power play record is quite dismal, ranking them 25th with a 13.4 percentage. The penalty kill is also in need of improvement, as the Solar Bears’ overall PK record clocks them in at dead last overall, with a 77.7 percentage.
Commenting on the short-handed opportunities that the Solar Bears have sometimes given to opponents, Berehowsky said,
“It’s happening a little too much for us right now. We have to realize that the power play unit has to work harder than the PK, and we’ll address it by watching video. There’s got to be the threat of being taken off of it. We’ve got guys coming back that can fill those roles.”
The Solar Bears head south this week to face off against the Florida Everblades at home on Wednesday at 7 p.m. They will battle the Idaho Steelheads next weekend. That series will include an exclusive game at the RDV Sportsplex on Sunday. The Solar Bears, despite being out of their main arena for one of those games, should still look to bring the intensity and continue the push to secure a home playoff spot.