ORLANDO, FL – Drake Berehowsky continues to propel the Solar Bears to success. On Friday, the team completed a 10-game homestand where it went 7-2-1-0. Notably, the two losses in regulation occurred prior to the coaching change that brought Berehowsky back to the den.
The homestand ended with a successful sweep of the Brampton Beast followed by an impressive 5-2 win over the division-leading Florida Everblades, Orlando’s in-state rival. The Everblades bit back on Saturday, however, taking a wild 8-6 victory when they faced the Solar Bears back at the Germain Arena in Estero. That game marked the start of a long 10-game road trip which will test the mettle and post-honeymoon heart of Berehowsky’s team.
The Solar Bears are now second in the South Division, trailing the Everblades by five points, and they have adjusted to a more physical, direct style of play that Berehowsky preaches.
Roasting the Beast
After the Thanksgiving Day victory over the Beast, the Bears enjoyed two more helpings of the victory pie on Nov. 26 and 28. The Solar Bears remain perfect when facing Brampton, as they swept the team up in Canada last season in their very first meetings. With the teams sporting the colors of their NHL affiliates, the Amway Center ice looked like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens had come down to Florida for the winter.
Orlando tallied up 5 goals in each of those two victories, and the team is getting production across its lines. New players on the roster are immediately generating points, and all the cylinders are firing.
In the Saturday match, the Solar Bears fell behind in the second period when Brandon Marino slid a pass from David Pacan into the goal. But Orlando found a response with some new faces on the roster: Rookie Mason Marchment took a pass from Taylor Doherty, then shot the puck which hit the leg of teammate Chris Crane (recently arrived from the Allen Americans) and found the net.
The teams would go far into the final frame tied up at 2-2, but then the Solar Bears’ consistent work ethic took charge. The best example of this ferocity would come when Austin Block rushed the Brampton net on a long pass by Trevor Ludwig. He missed from close range, but grabbed the rebound and tried again from behind the net. The shot bounced off of goalie Bryan Pitton and went in for a tally.
The rematch last Monday found Kasimir Kaskisuo between the pipes for Orlando, and the Solar Bears defense gave him sufficient support for him to get the win and a much-needed confidence boost. Once again, Orlando’s scoring showed depth. The opening line, which usually features Eric Faille, Patrick Watling, and Tony Cameranesi, continues to anchor the team, but scoring threats are appearing everywhere on the bench. Consider that Joe Perry leads the team with 12 goals and Denver Manderson with 23 points, yet neither of them is usually in the starting line.
Winning, then Losing, Against the Everblades
On Friday, the Solar Bears took on the division-leading Everblades in a Wawa Sunshine Cup series matchup, and the team showed that it can win decisively against the best. The game also saw the return of Brock Montgomery to the roster. A member of the team in 2014-15, he returned to Orlando after playing last year with the Fort Wayne Komets. He has been biding his time on reserve, clearly eager to get back into the mix, and when he entered the ice on his first shift, he showed that he is ready to play. After Block stole the puck behind the Florida net, Montgomery rushed in to take the pass and fire in a top shelf score from point blank.
The Amway Center rained stuffed animals in response as it was teddy bear toss night. With the Solar Bears wearing red ugly sweater jerseys, the Everblades in their forest greens, and the floor awash in plush toys, it was a holiday spectacle.
In the second period, after Manderson scored in the slot off a perfect set-up pass by Brett Findlay, Montgomery again became a factor. He started a rush and dropped a feed for Crane who drilled the shot past Florida netminder Anthony Peters. That tally would prove to be the game-winner. Danny New put the Everblades on the board towards the end of the second period, but with insurance goals by Manderson and Watling in the third, the Solar Bears’ victory was never in serious doubt.
The Solar Bears left Orlando on Saturday to start its long road trip with a rematch against the Everblades in Estero. Coming after the wave of wins on the home stand, Orlando might take the loss to Florida on Saturday as a jolt of reality. But that game had so many bizarre turns and developments that it seems almost surreal.
Special teams were the bane of the Solar Bears. They gave up two points due to power plays, and in both cases, John McCarron was the Everblades player who put in the tallies. That second score on the PP completed a hat trick for McCarron, but he wasn’t finished yet. He would put a fourth goal in an empty net when the Solar Bears pulled Ryan Massa as the clock moved under two minutes.
The dagger in the heart of Orlando’s special teams happened midway through the second frame when Florida scored two shorthanded goals in less than a minute. There were a number of times when Orlando’s power play sputtered and gave the Everblades scoring chances despite the Bears having the man advantage.
After McCarron’s fourth goal, Orlando found itself down 4-7 with just over 90 seconds left. It seemed like it was game over . . . but it wasn’t. Two quick Orlando goals in the final minute by Block and Faille pulled the team to within one. Massa was pulled again from the net for the face-off following Faille’s tally, and Orlando gained control of the puck. Watling started a push through the neutral zone but lost his footing and gave up the puck to Brendan O’Donnell, who would score another empty netter for the Everblades. The Solar Bears cried foul over a controversial tripping no-call in the final play. The game had previously been called tightly by the referees, which made the sin bins busy, but the final protests fell on deaf ears and the Everblades would end the wild west shoot-out with an 8-6 win.
Potential Road Hazards
The Solar Bears will now look to settle their game on the road, and Berehowsky’s coaching will be put to another test. When he led Orlando for their out-of-hibernation season in 2012-13, he had notable success at home, but the team was in the basement of the league when it came to its away record. He will be looking to put that ghost behind him by keeping the team on its winning ways in enemy territory. To do that, he will need immediately to address the special teams problems that boiled up against the Everblades and return the Bears to the disciplined approach that made the home stand so successful.
The goalie situation needs to be watched. Massa is garnering the notice of the league, and he won ECHL Goalie of the Month honors for November. If the Toronto Marlies (the Solar Bears’ AHL affiliate) were to ever become needy in the netminder department, Massa is likely to get the call. Kaskisuo’s play against the Beast was respectable, and the organization should be hopeful about his continued development. But the Bears would be wise to have a contingency plan in mind should Massa move up before season’s end.
One interesting development: T. J. Foster was loaned by the Marlies to the Norfolk Admirals, and the Marlies then loaned defenseman Willie Corrin to the Brampton Beast. At the end of last season, Kyle Dubas (General Manager of the Toronto Marlies) acknowledged that the movement of players to and from Orlando sometimes hurt the Solar Bears. These recent moves might suggest that the Marlies are tweaking the way in which they are using Orlando for its development program. The idea might be to lessen some of the disruptions caused by call-ups and send downs by occasionally using other non-Marlies-affiliated teams.
The remainder of the week will see the Solar Bears squaring off against South Division opponents. A two-game series against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits begins on Tuesday, and Orlando will then move to another two-game series against the Atlanta Gladiators on Friday. These will be crucial matches to prove that Berehowsky’s Bears can win both in their own den and on enemy terrain.