This week, the ECHL gave the Orlando Solar Bears a rare schedule treat: for the first time all season, the team faced opponents outside of the South Division...and the Eastern Conference.
It’s a similar situation for all 26 ECHL squads. With travel costs and proximity of opponents, a majority of their schedules are played within their own divisions. But, unlike their AHL bretheren, ECHL teams actually get an opportunity to play a team outside of their conference. This week, the Solar Bears headed west to Idaho and Utah for three games. Along with any souvenirs found along the way, they also came home with four out of a possible six points.
-Forward Tayler Thompson, who originally signed with Orlando in the offseason, but then left for the Czech Republic, returned to the team on Monday after appearing in 4 games for Pirati Chomutov. In a common ECHL transaction, the team suspended Thompson in late September to keep his playing rights, in the event he returned to North America.
-After Wednesday’s game in Idaho, forward Hunter Fejes, who leads the Solar Bears in scoring, was signed to a PTO by Manitoba.
-A familiar name was added to the roster on Sunday, as Orlando signed veteran forward Blake Kessel to a standard contract. While his siblings, Amanda and Phil, may be a little more well known, this Kessel has had a journeyman career since first turning pro in the 2011-12 season. He split last season between Jacksonville and Maine, appearing in a combined 21 games with 2 goals and 6 assists. This will be his second tour of duty with the Solar Bears—he spent parts of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons in Orlando, appearing in a combined 80 games with 11 goals and 39 assists.
Zachary Fucale got the nod in net as the Solar Bears began their Western swing in Boise on Wednesday night against the Steelheads. Orlando got on the board 4:18 into the contest on Rich Boyd’s first goal of the season. Fucale stopped all 13 Idaho shots faced.
20 minutes down, 40 to go! pic.twitter.com/wXHek9jWEv— Idaho Steelheads (@Steelheads) November 21, 2019
After a scoreless second period, the Solar Bears put the game away early in the third. Just 27 seconds into the frame, Mikhail Shalagin scored his second on a power play for a 2-0 lead. Thompson and Idaho’s Mitch Moroz stirred things up in an attempt to get the Steelheads going with just under 8 minutes remaining, and this may or may not have been actual footage:
Moroz lands a hit center ice and Orlando's Thompson drops the gloves pic.twitter.com/C4alj5pK8b— Idaho Steelheads (@Steelheads) November 21, 2019
(I see what you did there, Idaho Twitter.)
Trevor Olson scored an empty netter with just one second remaining to finish off a much needed Orlando win. Fucale took care of the rest, stopping all 44 Steelhead shots, including 16 in the third, for his second straight shutout. Before leaving to join Manitoba, Fejes added two assists.
3. Rich Boyd (ORL) 1 goal
2. Hunter Fejes (ORL) 2 assists
1. Zachary Fucale (ORL) 44 saves, SHO
Lots of saves and chances, but the game didn't go our way.— Idaho Steelheads (@Steelheads) November 21, 2019
Here are the CenturyLink High-Speed Highlights from last night. We're back tomorrow for a shot at redemption against Kansas City! pic.twitter.com/Nyd3jaNdCe
The road trip headed into Utah for the weekend, where the Solar Bears and Grizzlies faced each other for the first of two.
Interesting facts: the last time the two teams faced each other was in 1996, when the Grizzlies swept Orlando in four straight to win the IHL’s Turner Cup for the second straight season. The franchise had begun play in Denver a season earlier, but relocated to Salt Lake City prior to the 1995-96 season to make room for the Avalanche.
The teams exchanged goals in the first period. Utah got on the board first at the 9:01 mark on a power play goal by Eric Williams. Chris LeBlanc tied the game up with 2:22 remaining in the period with his 4th goal of the season.
After a scoreless second and third period—Orlando goaltender Clint Windsor and Utah goaltender Hunter Miska combined to stop 48 shots—it was on to overtime. The Grizzlies got the win at the 1:52 mark on J.C. Brassard’s second goal of the year.
Windsor finished with 31 saves on 33 shots in the hard-luck defeat.
3. Eric Williams (UTA) 1 goal
2. Hunter Miska (UTA) 29 saves
1. J.C. Brassard (UTA) GW OT goal
24 hours later, the two teams met again, with Orlando looking to avoid a sweep before heading back east to Florida.
The rematch was a near carbon copy of the night before.
The Grizzlies took the lead in the first on a power play goal by Garrett Klotz, his second of the season. Orlando tied the game 8:06 into the second period on Dylan Fitze’s first of the season. After that, the goaltenders—Fucale and Miska—took over, keeping both teams off the scoresheet for the remainder of regulation.
For the second straight night, it was on to overtime. Utah again escaped with the extra point, as Williams picked up the game winner with 2:09 remaining in the extra frame, giving the Grizzlies the two-game sweep.
Fucale’s scoreless streak ended at 137 minutes and 41 seconds, dating back to November 14th. He stopped 39 of 41 shots in the loss.
After a week of travel, the Solar Bears get a light Thanksgiving week, with just two games on home ice. And, of course, back to the familiar South Division opponents. On Tuesday, the team will host Norfolk, then South Carolina comes in Saturday night for a visit.