ORLANDO, FL – The Orlando Solar Bears and the Florida Everblades currently sit atop the South Division in a virtual dead heat with 35 points each. Starting tonight, the two will square off in an oddly scheduled three-game series. The match-up will give both teams the opportunity to claim dominance of the division, and the winner will be bringing home extra holiday cheer.

One need not mention that the losing side will leave their fans feeling like those kids who receive stockings full of coal.

The sequence will start at the home of the Everblades — Germain Arena in Estero — then move to Orlando’s Amway Center on Thursday. After the Christmas hiatus, the two will return to the Amway Center to finish up the battle on Tuesday, Dec. 27.

The long season is not yet at the halfway mark, but both sides know that the stakes for this series are high, and one should expect some intense games with a whiff of that Kelly Cup playoff aroma.

Adding intrigue and extra intensity to the games is the fact that both teams will be entering while licking some wounds. Florida is coming off a 3-2 loss to the struggling Atlanta Gladiators on Saturday. Former Solar Bear Kent Patterson anchored the net for Atlanta in that game and allowed only two goals on 43 shots which helped to seal the Gladiator win.

Meanwhile, the Solar Bears were rocked by the Fort Wayne Komets on Sunday. That game started off promising when Tony Cameranesi got Orlando on the board early in the first frame. But from then on it was all Komets, who scored seven unanswered goals in the last two periods. Let’s hope the 7-1 loss for Orlando was a wake-up call.

The Wednesday game in Estero will mark the end of a 10-game road trip that has, on the whole, been impressive for Orlando. After an initial loss to (who else?) Florida, Orlando went on to split a two-game set with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits, and then swept a two-game series against the Atlanta Gladiators. They moved north, shooting down the Wheeling Nailers and grabbing the first game against Kalamazoo. After the steady string of wins, the overtime loss in the second game against the K-Wings last week wasn’t so bad, but the embarrassing disaster in Fort Wayne is one that is giving the Solar Bears extra incentive to return to form.

The road trip involved a number of important developments which will impact the series against the Everblades . . .

Kaskisuo kicks into gear: Kasimir Kaskisuo, the rookie netminder assigned to Orlando by the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been getting his groove on. The year opened with some shaky performances, but he was sharp, steady, and staunch on the road. His stats show the improvement, with some significant hurdles crossed: His save percentage is now over .900 and his GAA is under 3.

Jutzi activated, but Crane still on reserve: The return of defenseman Jon Jutzi on Dec. 16 was welcome. Jutzi controls the puck well, and he is a great compliment to the blueline squad. But with the Faille recall, the Solar Bears desperately need a reliable forward who can put shots on the net. Chris Crane, whom Orlando acquired this year from the Allen Americans, brings the kind of offensive firepower that the team could use at this point.

Facing an old friend . . . and a new threat: On Dec. 7, the Everblades acquired Rory Rawlyk, a veteran defenseman whom the Solar Bears remember fondly. He came on board mid-season last year for Orlando and helped stabilize the squad in a time of need. Rawlyk’s experience and 6’5” frame are valuable assets, but he’s been placed on reserve. Even if he takes to the ice, he’s not the most dangerous new threat for the Solar Bears. That honor falls to Akim Aliu, a rugged and nimble two-way blueliner who has some NHL games with the Calgary Flames under his belt. Orlando would do well to study his game before heading to Estero.

Liebman and ECHL.TV shine: The road trip gave me the opportunity to listen to Jesse Liebman on ECHL.TV for a number of weeks. The picture quality of the streaming service has made notable advances this year. The crisper definition of the images means that one can better track the puck and notice the subtleties of the game play. Jesse Liebman, the Solar Bears’ on-air announcer, has also upped his game. He has always been a stand-out for his knowledge of the league, and this past year, he has clearly worked on adding a more organic, dynamic delivery to his arsenal. The effort is paying off, with some vibrant, gripping play-by-plays that are bringing the team to life when the fans can’t see the Solar Bears in person. His call of the Kalamazoo overtime loss last week was especially memorable. The important series with the Everblades will no doubt bring a larger ECHL.TV audience to the games, and the increased number of listeners will be a deserved reward for Liebman and his devotion to his craft.

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