ORLANDO, Fla. – The South Division Final will be something of a return grudge match for the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears. Last year, in the opening round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs, the Solar Bears took a 3-1 lead. A line brawl at the close of game four resulted in a career-ending injury for Orlando’s goalie Ryan Massa, and the Everblades went on to win three in a row to take the series.
Orlando is a very different team this year, with only Joe Perry and Chris Crane returning. They are also notably more physical, with players like captain Sean Zimmerman and defencemen Mike Monfredo and Alex Gudbranson more than willing to keep opponents in check.
This series promises to be a defensive battle. Florida’s Martin Ouellette was second in the ECHL with a 2.02 GAA and a .921 save percentage. But Orlando seems to have an answer in place with Cal Heeter, who leads the playoffs with a .66 GAA and a .980 save percentage.
Final Regular Season Records:
Florida Everblades: 53-13-2-4 (112 points — Brabham Cup Champs, 1st in South Division, 1st in Eastern Conference)
Orlando Solar Bears: 33-30-6-3 (75 pts, 3rd in South Division, 8th in Eastern Conference)
Division Semifinals Results:
Florida Everblades: Swept Atlanta Gladiators 4-0
Orlando Solar Bears: Swept South Carolina Stingrays 4-0
Game 1 – Friday, April 27 – Orlando at FLORIDA 7:30 pm ET
Game 2 – Saturday, April 28 – Orlando at FLORIDA 7:30 pm ET
Game 3 – Thursday, May 3 – Florida at ORLANDO 7 pm ET
Game 4 – Friday, May 4 – Florida at ORLANDO 7 pm ET
*Game 5 – Sunday, May 6 – Florida at ORLANDO 1:30 pm ET
*Game 6 – Tuesday, May 8 – Orlando at FLORIDA 7:30 pm ET
*Game 7 – Wednesday, May 9 – Orlando at FLORIDA 7:30 pm ET
*=> If Necessary
Season Series Recap:
During the regular season, the Everblades posted a 10-4-0-0 record against the Solar Bears, with three of those ten wins being decided by overtime. As the Brabham Cup winners, the Everblades were a dominating team against virtually all the opponents it faced, but the Solar Bears managed to find some success against its in-state rival. Four of the 13 losses sustained by the Everblades this year came at the hands of the Solar Bears.
How the Florida Everblades Win:
The Florida Everblades are used to beating the Solar Bears, and they will remember their ability to come from behind to win last year’s semifinal series. If they become too cocky, however, the Solar Bears will be ready to uncork another upset surprise as they did against the Stingrays. Orlando has clearly upped its game in the playoffs, so Florida should be prepared for a different team.
Florida needs to play the kind of systematic, grinding game that worked so well in the regular season. An aggressive forecheck coupled with sustained puck control in the offensive zone will keep Orlando back on its heels.
Florida has a core of seasoned players who have anchored the team, and head coach Brad Ralph will draw upon this group to keep the ship on an even keel. Logan Roe, who finished the regular season at plus-43 (tops in the ECHL), is a key stabilizer, and the Everblades will rely on the chemistry that exists among players like Michael Kirkpatrick, Mitchell Heard, and John McCarron, who have now played together over multiple seasons. The series will very much be a battle between a team anchored by many old friends (the Everblades) and a team that was completely rebuilt from the ground up (the Solar Bears).
How the Orlando Solar Bears Win:
The Solar Bears’ Cal Heeter needs to live up to his name and stay hot in the net, and the team needs to help out with the kind of disciplined, stingy defensive approach it adopted in the series against the South Carolina Stingrays. If the team and its goalie can continue to stifle the goals of its opponent, Orlando will be in a prime position to pull off another upset.
During the regular season, Orlando was fourth in the league in penalty minutes, averaging 18.5 minutes per game. The team was notably more careful in the series against South Carolina and cut that average down to 11.5 minutes per game. The Solar Bears need to continue to be wise in controlling infractions while also taking advantage of its physical force in the hits and checks departments. They can expect the Everblades to needle Heeter and to get them into penalty trouble. The Solar Bears need to stay smart and not take the bait.
Orlando needs to find ways to unlock the speed of players like Hunter Fejes and Martins Dzierkals, and to do this, they will need to focus on crisp transitions. The return of Nolan Valleau to the lineup will help in this department. Valleau is a blueliner who combines nimble skating with an ability to feed breakouts and to set up scoring opportunities. Look as well for physical forwards like Perry to crash the net looking for rebounds and redirections.
The Solar Bears have been perfect on the penalty kill during the playoffs, with two short-handed goals to boot. It does, however, need to improve its set up on the power play. When entering the offensive zone, Orlando struggled against South Carolina.
This should be a very entertaining series. Tia Preece and I will have it covered for you. Be sure to throw us a follow on Twitter! @Tia_Preece will have the latest on the Everblades and I’m @SinBinSolarBear for the Orlando perspective.