Orlando, FL – Three games, three different outcomes. Game One, a thriller. Game Two, a faith-builder. Game Three, a chiller. This sums up the three-day home stand that the Orlando Solar Bears experienced heading into Halloween.

The series consisted of one game against the South Carolina Stingrays on Thursday followed immediately by two games against the Atlanta Gladiators on Friday and Saturday. The set offered fans a triple feature with dramatically different story lines. What opened with a promising victory (the team’s first of the young season) ended with a zombie infection in need of a cure.

Thursday: Reanimator (2-1 win versus the South Carolina Stingrays)

The Thursday match-up with South Carolina proved initially to be a goalie battle between Orlando’s Ryan Massa and South Carolina’s Parker Milner. The Solar Bears were out-shot 8-4 in the opening frame, and it seemed like some of the offensive struggles of last year were back to haunt the team.

Things picked up in the shots category in the middle period, but the Bears were still searching to find the back of the net, and South Carolina’s Olivier Archambault’s power play goal gave the opposition a 1-0 lead heading into the third.

When former Solar Bear Scott Tanski was sent to the penalty box on a holding call, however, the home team came to life, with Brett Findlay scoring at 4:11. The tide was clearly turning, and the Bears became reanimated, with the team outscoring the Stingrays 15-5 in the period.

The final nail in the Stingray casket came off the stick of Patrick Watling, who was responsible for the memorably final-second goal in last home game last season.  Picking up a rebound from an Ethan Werek shot, Watling squeezed the game-winner behind Milner’s skate.

While not showing the team in its best light, the Bears seemed to be hitting their groove in the final 20 minutes, leaving the fans in positive spirits.

Friday: Return of the Living Dead (5-3 loss versus the Atlanta Gladiators)

Friday’s game was one of the best performances the Solar Bears have had in the Anthony Noreen era . Despite the 5-3 loss, the team saw improvements in many of their struggling areas. The shots on goal had significantly increased, the team pushed offensively and maintained good puck control, and they spent extended time in the Gladiator zone.

However, there were three players that contributed to the Bears’ downfall–Blake Kessel, Tyler Murovich, and Jay Williams–all of whom have worn Solar Bears jerseys in the past. Like cherished friends who have turned into zombies, the three of them went after their former teammates, looking for brains.

Williams showed solid goaltending throughout the game, stopping 49 of the impressive 52 shots on goal generated by Orlando’s offense. Meanwhile, Murovich scored the game-winning goal for Atlanta during the third, and Kessel racked up two assists.

Of the three former teammates, the Solar Bears might most regret the departure of Williams, who started the season for Orlando and was solid in the preseason match against the Florida Everblades. When compared to Kasimir Kaskisuo, his counterpart at the other end of the ice, Williams was clearly the more steady goaltender. Kaskisuo showed potential, but was unable to come up with the big saves.

Joe Perry showed impressive play, muscling himself in front of the net and scoring both of Orlando’s goals for his efforts. Werek also played solid, amassing ten shots on goal. While Perry and Werek’s heroics could not lead to a victory, the team fought well and left the fans eager for a sequel with a better final outcome.

Photo: Chad Boerth/The Sin Bin
Photo: Chad Boerth/The Sin Bin

Saturday: Nightmare on Church Street (8-2 loss versus the Atlanta Gladiators)

Saturday’s game was one the fans would like to forget.

Before the match, the team had made many personnel changes that left the coaches searching for new lineups. Werek was off to Cedar Park to tryout for the AHL’s Texas Stars, and Nick Brouillard, Watling, and Adam Brace were placed on reserve. Brouillard is a defenseman who loves to pinch up and play active in the offensive zone. Watling and Brace are both experienced forwards who have provided key leadership on the ice.

With Massa in goal, the team looked like it had a chance to fare well against the Gladiators, but it took only a few minutes to know that something wasn’t right. At 2:14 of the first, Trevor Mingoia scored the game’s opening goal. Just four minutes later, Mingoia struck again, this time with a power-play goal. Another minute elapsed, and Thomas Frazee sniped a third goal past Mazza. Noreen credited both the first and third goals to missed assignments by forwards.

The team started the second period trying to wake up from the bad dream. But every time they changed an element, they only seemed to create a new nightmare. They pulled Massa, hoping a goalie change would start something, but it didn’t. They tried to get new lines in, but that didn’t work. They tried to rough up the opponents and got thrown into the sin bin. Everywhere they turned, another Freddy Krueger appeared.

At 19:35 of the second, trailing by six goals, the Bears finally got on the board off the work of Perry.

But, 3:13 into the third period, Atlanta struck yet again, making it 7-1. Orlando would tally a second time at 11:35 (Eric Baier), but Atlanta would make it 8-2 not even a minute later.

During the evening, the Solar Bears played in special zombie jerseys, with only a few players donning the uniform in the game’s opening minutes, but with more and more of the team appearing in the outfit over the successive periods. By the final frame, the entire team was in the zombie attire, and their zombie frustration levels rose along with the visible signs of the spreading infection.

In short, the game became a crazy mess, and penalties were given out like candy at a trick or treat extravaganza. By the end, there were 76 total penalty minutes for both teams. If there was a single pleasant dream to take to bed, it was the fact that the Bears tallied 50 or more shots on goal both nights against Atlanta.

The Solar Bears prepare for a tough road trip to South Carolina and Georgia this week. They play the Stingrays at North Charleston on Tuesday, followed by two games against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Thursday and Friday. Then, it’s on to the Atlanta Gladiators on Saturday. The team, in its upcoming games, needs to keep up with the shots on goal, but find a way to avoid the costly assignment mistakes and defensive lapses that put it in the coffin on Saturday.

Photo: Chad Boerth/The Sin Bin
Photo: Chad Boerth/The Sin Bin

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