After a loss in their first regular season game last Saturday, the Orlando Solar Bears looked to rebound on the last leg of their road trip before Christmas, heading north to West Virginia for a pair of games against the winless Wheeling Nailers.
With new veteran reinforcements, including a player returning to the fold a year after a trade, the Bears picked up their first wins of the season, heading into the holiday break on a high note.
One day after adding forward Ben Thomson, Orlando picked up a defenseman familiar to the organization.
Thirteen months after being dealt to the Sabres for new teammate Devante Stephens, Spencer returns for his third season with the Solar Bears. He appeared in 3 games with Orlando and 2 with Syracuse at the beginning of the 2019-20 season before the trade, then had 1 goal and 16 assists in 39 games for Cincinnati. He also made one appearance for Rochester.
Thomson made his Solar Bears debut and Clint Windsor got the nod in net as Orlando took on the Nailers in the first of two.
We're almost ready to drop the puck — Follow along during tonight's road game here!— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) December 18, 2020
⚡️: @BoltsRadio #BEARLIEVE pic.twitter.com/U22x82wR7Z
After a scoreless first period—and three successful Orlando penalty kills—the offense exploded in the second, as the visitors scored three times on Wheeling goaltender Shane Starrett. Stephens put the Solar Bears on the board at the 1:05 mark with his first tally of the season.
The Solar Bears opened the scoring early in the second period thanks to DeVante Stephens' first of the season! pic.twitter.com/SLQmCdLLjf— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) December 19, 2020
Johno May doubled the Solar Bears lead at the 3:51 mark with his first of the season. Captain Chris LeBlanc then put Orlando up 3-0 with 2:53 remaining in the period with his first of the year.
Wheeling cut the lead to 3-1 5:22 into the third on a shorthanded goal by Tyler Drevitch. However, Ryan Lohin scored his second of the year with 2:44 to go in regulation to seal the first win of the season for Orlando. The Nailers added a goal with less than 2 minutes remaining, but could not get any closer.
Windsor finished with 22 saves on 24 shots. Stephens and seven Solar Bear skaters each had an assist in a well-balanced attack. The Solar Bears finished 0 for 4 on the power play, and outshot Wheeling 31-24.
For the first time since February 10th, 2016, Garret Sparks was in net for the Solar Bears, as they looked to finish off a two-game sweep of Wheeling before the holiday break.
Matthew Spencer makes his season debut and Garret Sparks gets his first start of the season in goal – tonight's lineup and more as we go for two against the Nailers!— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) December 19, 2020
Orlando took a 1-0 lead with 3:11 remaining in the first period, as Peter Abbandonato scored his first goal of the season. Wheeling rallied late in the second period against Sparks, scoring twice in a 3:10 span—including a late power play tally as time was expiring in the period—to take a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes.
The Solar Bears responded in the third, tying the game at two on a power play goal by Jimmy Huntington.
It was on to overtime for the first time in the 2020-21 season, and with 21 seconds remaining in the extra frame, rookie Alex Green scored his first pro goal for the win, giving the Solar Bears a modest two-game winning streak going into the extended holiday break.
SOLAR BEARS WIN!!! Alex Green wins it in OT with his first professional goal! pic.twitter.com/QQzDiU21f4— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) December 20, 2020
Sparks picked up his first ECHL win in over four years, finishing with 26 saves on 28 shots. J.J. Piccinich and Aaron Luchuk each added two assists. Orlando finished 1 for 4 with the man advantage, and outshot Wheeling 31-28.
Get the highlights from last night's 3-2 OT win here: pic.twitter.com/7HnuGWS2uu— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) December 20, 2020
This Week’s Schedule
The ECHL is officially off through Christmas Day, returning to game action on December 26th. Orlando, however, gets to enjoy an even longer break, not playing again until their home debut on December 29th against Jacksonville. Florida comes to the Amway Center to start four straight match-ups on December 30th, finishing off the 2020 portion of the schedule. A home and home with the Everblades follows to kick off 2021.
With no games this week, I’ll be back in early January. Enjoy your holidays, everyone!