When a hockey team has 14 games left in the regular season, and they are holding down a playoff spot, the obvious thing to do is get as many points as possible to hold down that spot and hopefully use it as a springboard into the postseason. Apparently the Orlando Solar Bears missed that memo going into the final full month of their regular season.
With many personnel changes over the last two weeks thanks to the ECHL trade deadline and the AHL needing bodies to fill in rosters, the team picked the worst time to go on a four-game losing streak. After hanging around in the South Division playoff picture for most of the season, Orlando now finds themselves on the outside looking in...and in danger of falling further if play doesn’t improve.
For the second week in a row, Orlando’s roster received another overhaul:
-Goaltender Clint Windsor received a well-deserved trip to the AHL on Monday after signing with Belleville on a PTO. He was reassigned to Orlando on Sunday after backing up fellow ECHL call-up Alex Dubeau (from Brampton) for three games.
-To fill in Windsor’s roster spot, the Solar Bears acquired goaltender Patrick Munson from Fort Wayne for future considerations. In 15 combined games with the Komets and Newfoundland, the rookie netminder is 7-6-1 with a 3.35 GAA and .898 save percentage.
-In a separate deal, forward Dylan Fitze was traded to Kansas City for forward Tad Kozun. Kozun had 12 goals and 13 assists in 52 games for the Mavericks.
-To complete an earlier deal with Toledo, Orlando acquired defenseman Mark Auk from the Walleye, then traded him to Rapid City for goaltender Alex Sakellaroupoulos. After a strong 2018-19 season where he won 19 games for Adirondack and made his AHL debut with Springfield, the native of Illinois has bounced around this season, splitting time with Norfolk and the Rush. In 19 appearances overall, Sakellaroupoulos is 6-12-0 with a 3.53 GAA and .897 save percentage.
-Another collegiate free agent was added to the roster on Friday, as Orlando signed defenseman Callum Hofford. The Ontario native comes to the Solar Bears by way of Salem State College of the MASCAC, a NCAA Division III school, where in his senior season he had 6 goals and 13 assists in 26 games for the Vikings.
-The team also released three skaters: defenseman Zane Schartz, who appeared in 8 games with a goal and an assist; forward J.M. Piotrowski, who was scoreless in three games; and forward Guillaume Gauthier, who played in just one contest and finished a -1.
A critical week began at home on Tuesday, as the Solar Bears hosted the Gladiators, who came into Orlando winners of six of their last seven games—and on the doorstep of a playoff position.
It was quite an offensive first period, as the teams combined for five goals in a span of 6:07. Jimmy Huntington got the hosts on the board first at the 11:06 mark with his third goal of the season. Cody Donaghey added his fourth goal 1:19 later to double the Orlando lead. Less than two minutes later, Trevor Olson scored his 18th for a 3-0 Solar Bears advantage.
You know that old saying, a three-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey? That was the case for the Solar Bears, as Atlanta began a rally. With 4:40 to go in the first, Derek Nesbitt scored his 14th of the season to cut the lead to 3-1. Less than two minutes later, Avery Peterson scored his 16th on a power play for a 3-2 game.
The Gladiators were not done with the offense in the second, scoring three more times against goaltender Jeff Smith. Zach Malatesta tied the game at 3 at the 10:41 mark with his 13th of the season. Eric Neiley then scored twice—one shorthanded, one on a power play—in a span of 3:55 to put Atlanta ahead 5-3 after 2 periods.
Finally, for good measure, Luke Nogard scored his 10th on a power play with 8:57 remaining for the final 6-3 margin. The Solar Bears’ second straight loss dropped them out of the playoff hunt into 5th place in the South, one point behind Atlanta and Greenville.
Smith finished with 27 saves on 33 shots. Olson and Donaghey each had two-point nights (1 goal, 1 assist).
3. Zach Malatesta (ATL) 1 goal
2. Derek Nesbitt (ATL) 1 goal, 3 assists
1. Eric Neiley (ATL) 2 goals, 1 assist
A quick turnaround for the Solar Bears on Wednesday, as they hosted the other team they were chasing for a playoff spot, the Swamp Rabbits.
Munson made his first Orlando start, and it was not a pretty one. Greenville came flying out of the gate in the first, scoring four times in the first 20 minutes. Nathan Perkovich got the visitors on the board at the 5:06 mark with his 18th of the season. Just over two minutes later, Joe Masonius doubled the Greenville lead with his second. The Swamp Rabbits then got back-to-back power plays and capitalized on both—at the 12:22 mark, Liam Pecoraro scored his 23rd for a 3-0 lead. Just under three minutes later, Matt Marcinew scored his 15th for a 4-0 margin.
Perkovich made it 5-0 Greenville halfway through the middle frame with his second of the night. Orlando finally found their way onto the scoresheet with 5:47 remaining in the second, as Rich Boyd scored his 8th of the season. Olson followed with his 19th goal shorthanded just over two minutes later to cut the Greenville lead to 5-2. On a late period power play for the Swamp Rabbits, Michael Pelech connected for his 15th of the season for a 6-2 lead, spelling the end of the night for Munson in favor of Smith.
Greenville was not done with the offense, as Marcinew scored his second of the game 7:53 into the third for the final 7-2 score. Orlando dropped their third straight game and remained one point behind Atlanta for fourth place.
Munson stopped 17 of 23 shots before exiting. Smith had 10 saves on 11 shots. Three Solar Bear skaters contributed one assist each.
3. Jeremy Helvig (GRN) 32 saves
2. Matt Marcinew (GRN) 2 goals
1. Nathan Perkovich (GRN) 2 goals, 2 assists
The Solar Bears headed north into Duluth on Friday night to break their slide and gain ground on the Gladiators.
Orlando got off to a good start in the opening 20 minutes of the contest. Tayler Thompson scored his third of the season at the 5:16 mark for a 1-0 lead.
Second period was all Atlanta, as they scored three times against Munson in his second start for the Solar Bears. Scott Conway’s 17th goal tied the game at 1 2:41 into the period. Nesbitt gave the hosts a 2-1 lead just under three minutes later. Finally, with 5:12 remaining in the frame, Logan Nelson’s 12th gave Atlanta a 3-1 lead.
Johno May scored shorthanded with 5:47 to go to get Orlando to within one, but that was as close as they would get, and the losing streak was extended to four games.
Munson’s second start was a lot better than his debut—he stopped 30 of 33, including a third period penalty shot—but got stuck with the loss. Olson and Eric Drapluk each had an assist.
3. Scott Conway (ATL) 1 goal
2. Derek Nesbitt (ATL) 1 goal
1. Logan Nelson (ATL) 1 goal
Kelly Cup Playoff Picture (as of March 8th)
With just four weeks remaining in the regular season, the ECHL playoff picture is slowly starting to come into focus. Six out of 16 teams have clinched their postseason spots: Newfoundland and Reading in the North, South Carolina and Florida in the South, Cincinnati in the Central, and Allen in the Mountain Division.
After Sunday afternoon’s action, here are the current South Division standings:
- x-South Carolina: 61 GP, 44-13-3-1, 92 points
- x-Florida: 62 GP, 43-13-4-2, 92 points
- Greenville: 64 GP, 29-30-4-1, 63 points
- Atlanta: 61 GP, 29-28-2-2, 62 points
- Orlando: 61 GP, 26-29-5-1, 58 points
- Jacksonville: 60 GP, 24-29-6-1, 55 points
- Norfolk: 59 GP, 13-38-8-0, 34 points (Eliminated from contention)
Orlando’s recent four-game slide has seen them fall from as high as third to outside of the playoff picture, with the sixth place IceMen right on their heels. The Solar Bears can max out at 80 points, currently giving them an elimination number of 19.
Orlando will have two chances to break the losing streak and try to gain ground. The team will return home on Wednesday night to host South Carolina, then head south to Estero on Saturday to face the Everblades.