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ESTERO, Fla. – This past weekend offered me a rare opportunity to travel the state to witness three professional hockey games (and four Florida teams) in under 30 hours. The trip also gave me a perfect chance to judge how the minor league hockey experience stacks up against the NHL. 

The trip began at 8 a.m. on Saturday, when I left my home near Orlando to travel down to Sunrise for a 2 p.m. game pitting the NHL’s Florida Panthers against the Edmonton Oilers. Immediately after that game’s finish at 5 p.m., I jumped on Alligator Alley, which cuts across the Everglades, and wound up in Estero where the Florida Everblades were finishing their three-game home-and-home series against the Orlando Solar Bears. I made the opening puck drop with 30 minutes to spare. Finally, on Sunday, I saw another NHL tilt as I traveled up to Tampa to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Edmonton Oilers in the early evening.

All three games had their store of exciting moments mixed with brilliant moves and embarrassing blunders. In Sunrise, I witnessed Oilers netminder Cam Talbot not minding his net, as he rushed far out of the crease to try and beat the Panthers’ Frank Vatrano to the puck. Forwards almost always beat goalies in the speed skating category, and Vatrano found a wide-open net greeting him.

In Tampa Bay, I saw another goalie blunder that led to the Oilers scoring a mere 14 seconds into the game. The Lightning’s Louis Domingue bobbled a routine play behind his goal and then had trouble settling himself in the crease, allowing the Oilers’ Ty Rattie to sneak the puck into the net.

Of course, the NHL games had their share of splendor as well. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov showed his offensive muscle by scoring two tallies, making that 35 goals for him this season. And in the first match, the Oilers came out blazing in the final frame to score three unanswered goals and take the game after being behind.

But in terms of excitement, drama, and grittiness, the Solar Bears and Everblades’ match on Saturday night took the prize hands down.

That game was the fourteenth of the season the two teams had played against each other, and it was the third game in three days for them. The players were fatigued. But they were sick and tired of each other, and the bitter rivalry gave them fire and spunk to spare. For energy level, the ECHL teams easily outstripped the Tampa Bay versus Edmonton tilt that took place on Sunday. While the Lightning and Oilers looked tired, the Everblades and Solar Bears looked downright angry and ready to battle in the trenches.

The game’s opening period ended with things locked up at 1-1, but in the second period, things intensified both in the scoring department and in the on-ice antics. Late in the second, the Solar Bears were up 3-2, and the Everblades found themselves getting called on a delayed penalty. Orlando’s netminder Cal Heeter was heading off the ice for an extra man, and the Everblades bench interfered with him. Orlando’s Kale Kerbashian scored while that incident unfolded, but a Solar Bears’ goal wasn’t enough for Orlando’s Mike Monfredo, who took up for Heeter in the face of the entire Everblades bench. The result was an extended altercation that eventually saw Orlando’s Sam Jardine and Florida’s Brett Bulmer dropping the gloves.

When the dust settled at the end of the night, Max Novak had tied a club record for points scored (5) and for assists (4). Meanwhile, Hunter Fejes and Kerbashian both found themselves with four-point games.

While Darryl Bootland might not be on the Orlando roster anymore, it seems that his spirit has descended upon his team. Jardine, normally a contained and controlled defenseman, has a fighting spirit that has been unlocked. And Heeter started the season chill and quiet, but he’s now settled into his role as an antagonizer between the pipes.

On Friday night, while the referees were sorting out a dispute between the two teams, Heeter found a spare puck and fired it into the empty net at the other end of the rink. While this certainly didn’t count as a goal since there was a stoppage in play, he took this opportunity to get the Germain Arena fans riled up by saluting them and bowing in the face of their boos.

When Florida’s netminder Martin Ouellette returned the favor by firing a “goal” of his own down the length of the ice, and Heeter greeted that feat with some fist pumps.

Finding itself down 7-3 in the middle of the third period, the Everblades didn’t give up. Some quick tallies by Matt Berry and Joe Cox brought Florida to within two with just under three minutes left.

But when Florida pulled Ouellette, Joe Perry made the Everblades pay with a “what-was-that?” shot from his belly that sent the puck sailing out of mid-air and into the empty net.

All Florida could do in the closing minutes was to get called for some penalties, which meant the team had to play down two men in the closing moments of the game. The Everblades crowd sent Orlando off the ice with boos and razzes, and Heeter returned the favor by waving goodbye and blowing the Everblades faithful kisses.

Yes, the Germain Arena crowd of 6,655 might be a dwarf compared to what you see at an NHL contest and the minor leagues can’t compete with the off-ice spectacle of the major league, but the Solar Bears and Everblades contest gave the fans a game that is the stuff of legend. It demonstrated what makes minor league hockey great, with all its warts, raggedness, and guts.

But the season isn’t over yet, and the playoffs haven’t even started. Tonight, the Solar Bears face another rugged three-game series, this one against the South Carolina Stingrays. With the Stingrays battling the Everblades for the top spot in the South Division, they will enter the Amway Center looking for some points.

And Orlando will be looking to use the series to punch its playoff ticket and to secure its third-place position. Currently, Orlando holds a six-point advantage over the fourth place Atlanta Gladiators.

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