ORLANDO, FL – The Orlando Solar Bears began the year with high hopes, and its opening road trip, which included a victory against the Allen Americans, seemed to confirm those hopes. But the first homestand has punctured that balloon, and the team is now scrambling to find some answers. The Solar Bears are currently 2-5-2-0, and they sit in sixth place in the South Division. To add to their pain, they remain winless at home.
Yes, the year is still young, but the South Division is led by three teams—the Florida Everblades, the South Carolina Stingrays, and the Greenville Swamp Rabbits—firing on all cylinders. If Orlando cannot get some traction, it will quickly find itself buried in a deep, deep Swamp Rabbit hole.
Orlando’s Tuesday night match against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits started out well, with special teams clicking. J. J. Piccinich scored the team’s first short-handed goal of the season when he picked up a turnover in the neutral zone and turned on the jets. A late first period power play allowed the Solar Bears to grab the lead when Max Novak found the net for his third goal of the season.
The newly acquired Mackenzie Skapski seemed to be finding his groove in the net, and it looked like the Solar Bears were finally gaining their balance. In the final minute of the first frame, however, the Swamp Rabbits tied things up with a mark by Branden Troock.
That goal was the start of a flood of Swamp Rabbit tallies. Greenville scored three more unanswered goals in the second period. In an attempt to stop the bleeding, head coach Drake Berehowsky replaced Skapski with Cal Heeter at the start of the final frame, but the Greenville scoring continued, and the game ended with a decisive 2-7 thumping of Orlando.
After the game, Berehowsky expressed his disappointment. “It was a terrible game,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most boring games I’ve ever coached. I don’t think we came with any jam or spark.”
Thursday’s school-day match featured a 10:30 a.m. puck drop and a crowd of 6,395, most of whom were elementary and middle school students. The atmosphere was positive, and the Solar Bears shined in the opening frame with two power play scores, one by Todd Skirving and the other by Nolan Valleau. Skirving’s play has been inspired, and he put the Solar Bears up 3-0 with another tally at the start of the second frame.
While the power play was a boon to the Solar Bears, its penalty kill sputtered at the start of the second period. Aleksandr Mikulovich was called for a four-minute double minor penalty for slashing at the 3:48 mark, and the Swamp Rabbits capitalized twice to tie up the score 3-3.
The Solar Bears did not lack in scoring opportunities and ended the game with a blistering 44 shots on goal. But the score remained deadlocked at the end of regulation, and Greenville’s Adam Chapie sunk in the dagger with the game-winning goal one minute into the overtime.
Asked about what the team needs to do heading forward, Skirving said, “It’s a long season. We’ve just got to stick to doing the little things that work for us. You saw the first 40 minutes that we played today when we were playing five-on-five—I think we are best playing five-on-five. We’ve got a lot of speed and a lot of skill, and I think we’ve got to take it to other teams.”
The Solar Bears will look to regain its footing—and to earn the season’s first home win—when it squares off against the Florida Everblades on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Then, the team will take a road trip to Atlanta and Greenville next week. Berehowsky will be looking forward to using that time away from home as an opportunity to build some team cohesion and chemistry.
The team is also looking forward to the return of Joe Perry to the lineup and to the appearance of veterans Darryl Bootland and Sean Zimmerman who started the season on reserve. Acquiring two veterans while knowing they would spend October and November on reserve was a big gamble for Berehowsky and the Solar Bears. The next month will tell whether the team can cash in on its bet.