ORLANDO, Fla. — Saturday night’s tilt between the Orlando Solar Bears and the South Carolina Stingrays proved to be a virtual replay of Game 3 of the South Division Semifinals. That ultimately meant great news for the Solar Bears. It also meant a painful season-ending loss for the Stingrays.
As with Game 3, the first period of Game 4 was scoreless; South Carolina had a significant shots-on-goal advantage (42 to 23); the game was locked 1-1 at the end of regulation time; the Solar Bears triumphed with less than three minutes on the clock in the first overtime period. The fans sometimes thought they were watching a replay of Game 3.
Once again, Orlando’s Cal Heeter was a wall, stopping 41 of the 42 shots he faced. He holds the top spot among all ECHL goalies in the playoffs with a .66 goals-against average and a .980 save percentage. The Stingrays’ Parker Milner was also brilliant in the series, with a 1.54 GAA and a .926 save percentage. Unfortunately for Milner, he was up against a goalie who is playing on a superhuman level.
For the Solar Bears, Saturday’s victory was historic. The game four win marks the first time in the club’s ECHL history that it has made it past the opening round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs. The Stingrays meanwhile have now suffered two consecutive sweeps and eight straight losses in playoff action.
Orlando’s Sam Jardine opened the scoring in the second period on Saturday with a power play goal off a sizzling strike from dead center on the blueline. Max Novak provided the feed. That marked only the second power play goal of the series.
The Stingrays went on to put themselves in a world of trouble in the later part of the second period due to penalties. At one point they had to play down two men. But their PK unit and Milner were perfect, and the team then turned the tables on the Solar Bears in the third period when Patrick Megannety tallied a short-handed goal on yet another Orlando power play.
During overtime, the Stingrays had the Solar Bears back on their heels, ultimately outshooting Orlando by an eight to three margin in the extra frame. But, as has been the case, the Solar Bears made its shots count. Nolan Valleau set things up by taking the puck behind the Stingrays net and then feeding the puck to Jean Dupuy. Dupuy came back around to Milner’s glove side and buried the puck from close range.
There were more short-handed goals (three of them) in the series than power play goals (only two). Hunter Fejes registered two of those three shorties, and they were both game-winners.
The Solar Bears were a perfect 100% on the penalty kill, stopping all 18 of the South Carolina opportunities in the series.
Orlando sits atop the ECHL in average playoff attendance at 7490. The Saturday night attendance was 8081. The Solar Bears see their home ice as giving them an energy boost in the playoffs.
While Orlando racked up the penalty minutes during the regular season, it has been more disciplined in the playoffs. The Stingrays and Solar Bears each totaled 46 penalty minutes during the series, and there were no fights.
The Solar Bears were far behind in the shots-on-goal category. They mustered only 96 shots in the four games compared to 152 from the Stingrays. But Orlando made its shots count and were clearly the ones more effective at making the most of opportunities from the high percentage areas.
The Solar Bears defense remained strong. Heeter’s performance was stellar, but the netminder was helped by his team keeping the Stingrays away from the slot and crease areas. The Solar Bears also were alert to swatting away rebound opportunities. Thrilling defensive stands were a hallmark of the series for the Solar Bears.
Stealing both of the games in North Charleston to take a 2-0 lead heading into Orlando was huge for the Solar Bears. The large and loud Amway Center crowd pushed the Solar Bears to keep their feet on the gas and to power to a sweep.
Head coach Drake Berehowsky is planning to give the team a couple of days off to recuperate, and then is going to get his squad to focus squarely on the Florida Everblades whom the Solar Bears will face in the South Division Finals. Asked about his team’s struggles to get the power play on track, he said,
“We’ve been practicing it, and we will continue to practice it. That’s all we can do. We’re going to look at ways to beat Florida as we tried to figure out ways to beat South Carolina. They block a lot of shots, and they do a good job with that. We have to look at some video, and we just have to keep working at it.”
Joe Perry is one of the only two players on the team who played against the Florida Everblades in last year’s playoffs. That series saw Orlando squandering a 3-1 series lead after its goalie Ryan Massa suffered a career-ending injury in a line brawl. When asked to what extent the current Solar Bears knows about that contest, Perry said,
“Probably not too aware. There’s only two of us [who played in that series]. It’s probably something we’ll discuss this week. But again, it’s a new year. We have a brand new team. [The Everblades] have a pretty similar team, so a fresh start for us. I think we’re all looking forward to the challenge.”
The South Division Finals will see the Solar Bears facing off against their in-state rivals, the Florida Everblades. That series will start at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 27, at the Germain Arena in Estero.
The Sin Bin will provide a preview of that series along with ongoing coverage of all the games.