ORLANDO, FL – While the Orlando Solar Bears didn’t exactly conquer the Mountain Division over the past two weeks, but, they did manage to keep their foothold. Having finished off a historic road trip against Colorado and Alaska with a .500 record, the team returns to their beloved home state to face the all-too-familiar Florida Everblades.
In terms of South Division standings, little has changed: The Solar Bears left Orlando in second place and they returned in second place.
But not all is happy in the land of Mickey Mouse.
The third place South Carolina Stingrays are 8-2 in their last 10 games, and they are now only two points behind Orlando. In fact, the Stingrays are the better team when you look at win percentage.
Now Orlando must close out the month facing two division leaders. The Everblades have a commanding and growing seven-point lead in the South Division, the Solar Bears play them in a two-game set on Friday and Saturday. Afterward, the team must reset for another two-game series – this one against the red-hot Allen Americans on January 26 and 29. Allen leads the Mountain Division and has not lost in regulation in their last 12 starts.
With the All-Star break upon us, this is a great time to take stock of what the road trip revealed.
Winning Even Without Key Veterans: With Taylor Doherty called up to the Providence Bruins and Trevor Ludwig out on injured reserve, the Solar Bears had to rely on a younger defensive squad. They came through in a big way in the opening game against Colorado when they held the Eagles to 21 shots on goal. The blueliners are not consistently shutting down opponents, but they are nimble in all zones and are helping the Bears break more quickly out of the defensive zone which had been a real weak spot for the team prior to the road trip.
Power Play Getting Back on Track: In December, the Solar Bears’ power play sputtered, but coach Drake Berehowsky has been working on his special teams, and it is starting to pay off. Brendan Miller tallied two power play goals in the series against Colorado, and in the final score-fest against Alaska, the team piled up three power play scores.
Deep Lines: While call-ups to the Toronto Marlies (Orlando’s AHL affiliate) have not been quite as jolting as last year, there has been a slow siphon of some of the Solar Bears’ key offensive threats. Fortunately, the squad has seen some quick production out of some of its newest faces. Alex Gacek, who arrived from the South Carolina Stingrays in December, has continued his steady point production, and Alexandre Carrier and Darik Angeli have both contributed to the offensive output. One factor that strikes you when looking at the score reports is how the Solar Bears continue to see multiple lines involved in the scoring. If, or when, this team gets their high-powered forwards back from call-ups, Orlando will have a tremendously deep roster.
Kaskisuo Consistency: Kasimir Kaskisuo continues to be steady in between the pipes. While there are occasional lapses in his play, those faults are decreasing. He is minimizing golden rebound opportunities and is picking up the puck more effectively when rebounds do occur. He is also slowly developing his ability to play the puck behind and around the net. Solar Bears fans are still nervous when he handles his stick, but there are fewer heart attacks when he skates outside his crease, and Kaskisuo is showing more wisdom in keeping things simple and straightforward on the puck handling side of things.
Exterminating the EBUGS with Williams: Goalie Ryan Massa started the road trip in fine fashion in the opening game against Colorado, but he was the backup in the second game, and then he was off the roster. The Solar Bears relied on EBUGs (emergency backup goalies) for the final game against Colorado and for the entire three-game set against Alaska. Massa was officially placed on reserve on January 13, but on that day Jay Williams was acquired from the Atlanta Gladiators in a three-way trade that also involved the Wheeling Nailers. The Solar Bears started the pre-season with Williams on the roster, and they were clearly impressed by what they saw. While Williams’ skills need refining, he has great potential and brings a competitive spirit that should make a positive impact on the team.
Farewell Faille: Eric Faille is the last in a parade of forwards (Brett Findlay, Tony Cameranesi, Ethan Werek, T. J. Foster, Cason Hohmann) who have left the team due to call-ups or reassignments. While Berehowsky has weathered these challenges, Faille’s departure is going to leave another hole that will be hard to fill. It would be nice if the Marlies would send someone down to compensate for Faille’s call-up. Solar Bears fans are also hoping that Ludwig will return soon from injured reserve, that Doherty will return from Providence, and that Werek will come back from the Stars. It is doubtful that all three of these events will occur, but one or two of them would help to keep the Bears clawing for the top of the division. Of particular concern must be the loss of nimbleness and speed that has occurred with the departures of so many forwards. Berehowsky and his assistant John Snowden will need to keep their radar up for that type of player.
Keys to January Success: There are three things that Orlando needs to do in order to win these upcoming games against the Everblades and the Americans.
- Lessen the shots on goal of the opposition: The Solar Bears have unfortunately become notorious for being generous hosts to visiting teams, allowing an infamously huge number of shots on goal. In the last two games Orlando played against the Everblades, they allowed a total of 109 shots on goal. That is not a typo. Also, in one of the games against Alaska, the team allowed Kaskisuo to face a barrage of 27 SOG in one period. These numbers are not acceptable against teams like the Blades and the Americans. If they can allow less than 35 SOG in a game, the Solar Bears should have a fighting chance.
- Improvements to the Power Play: The road trip showcased several power play goals, which was a nice reversal of a dismal power play drought at the end of December. The team needs to continue with this trend. Carrying the torch for the bruising Mountain Division, Allen leads the league in penalty minutes, and Orlando should work to capitalize on this Achilles heel.
- Transition Game: Florida relies on an aggressive forecheck, and too often the Solar Bears have responded to this strategy by resorting to a turtle defense. That is, Orlando will seek to minimize high percentage shots by clogging up space in front of the goal, but in turn, they allow their opponents to maintain puck control. This is starting to change with quicker breakouts, aided in part by nimble two-way defensemen like Nikolas Brouillard, Jon Jutzi, and Miller. The team needs to continue to resort to this type of more potent response to the forecheck.
The close of January will be tough for the Solar Bears, but the team is showing spark and determination. A dream situation would be for Orlando to grab six points in the next four games: That would most likely leave the Solar Bears ahead of the Stingrays and in a position to make a move in February. Failing that, if the Solar Bears can break an even .500, it will find itself neck-and-neck with the Stingrays and in a contentious fight for second place.