ORLANDO, Fl – After losing a hard-fought series opener, the Orlando Solar Bears put together four-straight wins to clinch the South Division Semifinals series against the South Carolina Stingrays on Saturday night. This marks the second year in a row that the Solar Bears have shut the door on the Stingrays in the opening round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
Orlando’s Connor Ingram has been a steely, steady performer between the pipes. His play has been marked by solid positioning and an ability immediately to freeze pucks after taking a shot. In addition, he has made brilliant saves in those rare moments when there is chaos around his net. Among goalies who have played more than one playoff game, he leads the league with a 1.64 goals against average, and he is second with a .947 save percentage.
On the opposite end of the ice, South Carolina’s goalie Parker Milner didn’t make things easy for Orlando. His shutout of the Solar Bears in the opening game of the series made it clear that the Solar Bears would need to look for backdoor plays, turnover opportunities, and traffic in front of the net to score.
As the series moved along, the Solar Bears’ offensive firepower became too much for the Stingrays to handle. Orlando was buoyed by a number of key additions from players returning to the team from AHL ranks. On April 15, Hunter Fejes was released from a professional try-out agreement with the Manitoba Moose. During the year, he had played 49 games in the AHL, splitting time between Manitoba and the Rockford Ice Hogs. His acquisition by the Solar Bears midway through the 2017-18 campaign was costly, with Orlando essentially giving up three players to bring him on board. But head coach Drake Berehowsky has cashed in repeatedly on that move; that trade for Fejes keeps on giving.
Despite playing in only three of the five games of the series, Fejes leads the Solar Bears in the playoffs with five points and four goals. His importance was immediately evident when he joined the team in North Charleston on April 17, and netted the game-winning goal in second overtime. The painful loss in that game was one from which the Stingrays never fully recovered.
Jonne Tammela is another player who joined the Solar Bears mid-series and made an impact. In the clinching game on Saturday, he netted one goal and tallied two assists. Tammela is a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect who has been splitting time with the AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch. That pipeline also added offensive magician Otto Somppi and solid defenseman Matthew Spencer to the Solar Bears squad after the series start.
When it comes to offensive firepower, the Solar Bears are loaded. Forward Tayler Thompson worked his way up from SPHL ranks, and he proved last year that he will turn on the afterburners for playoff hockey. Currently he is tied for second on the team with Mitch Hults with three playoff goals. Thompson could be called the offensive spark of the team. In three of the four wins, he was the player who got the scoring started for the Solar Bears.
If there is a silent key to the Solar Bears success, it is special teams and defense. During the regular season, Orlando was at the bottom of the league when it came to the penalty kill, but against South Carolina, it adopted a more aggressive approach in the neutral zone which gave the Stingrays all sorts of problems breaking in. In a stunning reversal of the regular season record, Orlando currently sits at second in the league in the PK with an 88.5% success rate. The team is also much improved in terms of limiting its time in the sin bin.
Overall, defense has tightened up. The Solar Bears are tied with three other teams in terms of allowing the least number of goals against. Seasoned defenseman Alexander Kuqali has joined veteran Mike Monfredo in anchoring the team around the net. Kuqali is tied for second in the plus-minus category with +6, and rookie Kevin Lohan is among the rookie leaders with +5.
While it won’t appear in any statistics, the commitment of the forwards to the defensive effort has been another crucial key to the team’s success. Systematic two-way play has become a hallmark of Berehowsky’s coaching philosophy, and the players are buying in.
With the stream of late additions to the playoff lineup and notable improvements on the defensive side, the Solar Bears could be the stealth team of the Kelly Cup Playoffs. They now await the winner of the other South Division Semifinal series between the Florida Everblades and the Jacksonville Icemen to decide their Florida-based opponent for the South Division Final.
Berehowsky made club history last year by going past the first round of the playoffs. This year, he to move the Solar Bears even deeper into the postseason, which means into the Eastern Conference Final. To do that, the team needs to continue its focus on a committed defense and good tactical execution on the special teams. If the Solar Bears continue to play the way they have been since game two, Berehowsky has a good chance of making history once again.