ORLANDO, Fla. – Solid goaltending. Nail biting penalty kills. Heroes turned into villains. Brave defensive stands.
The opening salvos of the South Division Semifinal match-up between the Orlando Solar Bears and the South Carolina Stingrays have been fired, and the series is showing all the hallmarks of great playoff hockey.
The two teams squared off on Wednesday and Friday night at the Amway Center, and when the dust cleared, they both came away with a victory. Neither win came easy.
In the Wednesday tilt, Orlando’s Connor Ingram gave up a single goal on 27 shots, but that wasn’t good enough. South Carolina’s Parker Milner saved all 26 shots he faced, and he was brilliant in gobbling up pucks and in deflecting shots to safety. Mason Mitchell’s tally in the second period proved to be both the scoring opener and the game winner. That score was set up by a pickpocket play in the Stingray’s defensive zone. Cameron Askew led the rush on the left wing and then set up Mitchell with a perfect drop pass.
The only other score in the evening involved an empty netter sent in by Josh Grattan in the final minute of the game.
Ironically, Mitchell became a key factor in his opposition’s win on Friday night. He was called for a slew-footing penalty which left Orlando’s Akim Aliu spawled and in pain on the ice in front of the Stingrays’ goal. That move resulted in a five-minute major and game misconduct call. In the ensuing power play, the Solar Bears’ Mitch Hults found the back of the net for the second time in the game, and that proved also to be the game winner. Mitchell has also been assessed a one-game suspension which will leave him sitting out for the coming Wednesday tilt.
In the Friday game, Milner and Ingram continued their heroics, and the game was scoreless through the first period. The Solar Bears were clearly frustrated by four periods of scoreless hockey, and they decided to turn things around in the second frame. They peppered Milner with 17 shots while holding the Stingrays to only four shots in the same period.
Tayler Thompson got the scoring started early in the second when the Stingrays were unable to clear the puck out of their zone. Zach Frye and Dylan Fitze effectively broke up the exit attempt by South Carolina, and a bouncing puck found Thompson sitting alone in front of the Stingrays’ goal.
South Carolina mounted a strong comeback, aided in part by Orlando’s tendency to get into penalty trouble. The Solar Bears faced two penalty kills where it found itself playing two men down. They were successful in fending off one of those situations but was unable to dodge the bullet twice. The Stingrays’ Tad Kozun found the back of the net when there were only eight seconds left on the Orlando three-man penalty kill.
Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky was able to calm his troops at that point, and they put an end to the South Carolina scoring by clogging up the zone around the net and stifling second-chance opportunities.
The series now moves to North Charleston where the teams will square off at 7:05 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.
Look for the Solar Bears to be buoyed by the recent return of forward Jonne Tammela from the Syracuse Crunch. Milner has been a strong anchor, but if Orlando can continue to fire shots on the net with traffic in front, they will find success. Orlando, however, needs to avoid penalty situations, and they can’t allow their eagerness to score to leave them vulnerable to counterattacks.
The Stingrays meanwhile have been effective in preventing clean rushes and breakaways by the Solar Bears. The Stingrays boast a quick and committed defense, and if they can grab a lead, they will prove hard to catch. This year, the Stingrays have given up some size on the team, but they have more than compensated for that with an increase in speed and a solid defensive system.