Remember the movie Airplane! from the early 1980s, when Lloyd Bridges’s character picked the wrong week to quit everything? Well, this week, it looks like it was the wrong week for the Orlando Solar Bears to go on a losing streak.
With four games remaining in the 2020-2021 season, the Solar Bears were barely hanging on to fourth place in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference, with South Carolina and Jacksonville nipping at their heels. All the team needed to do was beat both teams in regulation in three of their final four games, and a shot at the Kelly Cup was theirs.
Unfortunately, things did not work out that way, and the team finds themselves on the outside looking in, trying to figure out how the end of the regular season came to a disastrous end.
More League Honors...
-On Tuesday, defenseman Matthew Spencer was named the Inglasco/ECHL Player of the Week for the week ending May 30th. In four games, he scored twice—both goals of the game-winning variety—and added five assists.
-Rookie forward Joseph Garreffa was named to the ECHL’s 2020-21 All-Rookie Team on Wednesday. Currently on an AHL contract with San Jose, Garreffa has split time between Orlando and Allen, appearing in a combined 59 games with 13 goals and 29 assists. He finished third among all first year skaters in points and tied for second in helpers.
Forward Aaron Luchuk may need to clear some space on the shelf, as he earned multiple league awards:
-On Thursday, he was named to the 2020-21 All ECHL First Team.
-Friday, he was the recipient of the league’s Sportsmanship Award, given to a player who is “judged to have exhibited the best sportsmanship combined with a high standard of playing ability.” Luchuk checks both boxes on this list: he won the ECHL scoring title with 74 points in 72 games, and amassed just 16 penalty minutes.
The final week of the regular season began on Tuesday night in Jacksonville, as Orlando looked to eliminate the sixth place Icemen from playoff contention and lower their magic number.
Nolan Valleau draws back into the lineup tonight as we take the ice for a big game in Jacksonville!— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) June 1, 2021
via @flohockey — https://t.co/g5aLHteZt7
https://t.co/fV1V8a4GnZ / https://t.co/ov8kK302BP#BEARLIEVE | #ORLvsFLA pic.twitter.com/vDBJGonmlO
Orlando took a 1-0 lead 9:46 into the opening period on Tad Kozun’s fourth goal of the season.
Fighting for their postseason lives, the Icemen rallied in the second, tying the game at one 8:06 into the period on a goal by Erik Bradford. Mike Szmatula gave the hosts a 2-1 lead 4:59 into the third with his 21st of the season.
Orlando was not done, however, as Tristin Langan scored his team leading 28th of the year with 7:32 to go in regulation to tie the game at 2. Then, the luckiest goal of Orlando’s season happened. With Icemen goaltender Charles Williams leaving his crease due to a possible delayed penalty, Luchuk somehow managed to slip the puck into the empty net with 1:38 remaining for a 3-2 Solar Bears lead. The Icemen scrambled at the end, but could not get any closer, and the Solar Bears escaped with two very important points. With the loss and a South Carolina win, Jacksonville was eliminated from playoff contention.
Windsor stopped 21 of 23 shots in picking up his 23rd win of the season, setting a new Orlando single season record. Michael Joly added two assists.
One playoff spot up for grabs. Two teams battling for that spot. Fourth place was on the line on Thursday night at the Amway Center, as Orlando hosted the Stingrays in the most important game of the 2020-21 season.
Orlando got off to a good start in the first, taking a 1-0 lead on Luchuk’s 28th goal of the season.
South Carolina rallied big time after that goal, scoring three times in a span of 1:36. Just 30 seconds after Luchuk’s goal, Brett Supinski’s 15th tied the game at 1. At the 14:03 mark, Justin Florek gave the Stingrays a 2-1 lead with his 17th. Cole Ully finished off the flurry of goals 32 seconds later, putting the visitors up by 2 with his 23rd goal of the season.
The Stingrays added to their lead in the second, as Ully scored his second of the night on a power play with 6:13 to go in the middle frame for a 4-1 lead.
Florek increased the South Carolina lead to 5-1 2:49 into the third with his second of the game, a goal that nearly got reversed after a camera angle showed the puck may have possibly entered through a hole behind the net, but was ultimately upheld. That goal spelled the end of the night for Windsor, as he was yanked in favor of Michael Lackey.
Andrew Cherniwchan added to the rout for South Carolina, scoring his 21st with 3:55 to go for a 6-1 lead. Orlando did have some life left in them, as Anthony Repaci scored his 9th goal 32 seconds later to cut the lead to 6-2.
With the win, the Stingrays took over fourth place in the East with one game left to play on their schedule, forcing Orlando into a must-win situation.
Windsor finished with 32 saves on 37 shots before leaving, while Lackey stopped 9 of 10.
The Solar Bears were in control of their playoff destiny for the last regular season road game in Jacksonville on Friday: win, and they’re still alive. Lose, and you’re out.
One last road game for the regular season, and it's a BIG ONE.— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) June 4, 2021
via @flohockey — https://t.co/g5aLHteZt7
https://t.co/fV1V8a4GnZ / https://t.co/ov8kK302BP
⚡️ @boltsradio#BEARLIEVE | #ORLatJAX pic.twitter.com/k0ZrYLQbkR
It may have been a scoreless first, but it didn’t lack action, as Dmitry Semykin answered the bell again Jacksonville’s Jacob Friend, who wasn’t all that friendly.
Jacob Friend stepping up physically in a big way again! Flights for Fights is on for our home season finale! pic.twitter.com/SFDrgwP0PA— Jacksonville Icemen (@JaxIcemen) June 4, 2021
Jacksonville took over the contest early in the second with a pair of goals against Windsor. On their second power play, and just 14 seconds into the period, Bradford connected for his 11th goal for a 1-0 lead. Szmatula made it a 2-0 game at the 2:03 mark with his 22nd of the season.
The Icemen turned up the offense in the third. Abbott Girduckis scored on a power play at the 1:39 mark for a 3-0 advantage. Just over a minute later, a Ara Nazarian tally made it 4-0 Jacksonville, and for the second straight night Windsor was removed from the game in favor of Lackey. The goalie switch seemed to wake up Orlando a little, as Garreffa scored his 13th 28 seconds after the change to cut the Icemen lead to 4-1. Brendan Warren then put the nail in the coffin, scoring a shorthanded goal with 9:18 remaining for the final 5-1 lead.
And with that regulation loss, Orlando was officially eliminated from Kelly Cup contention, giving idle South Carolina the fourth and final East playoff spot.
Windsor stopped 19 of 23 shots in 42 minutes of work before making way for Lackey, who finished with 6 saves on 7 shots. Spencer added another assist.
One last game on Saturday, as Orlando closed out their season on home ice against the Everblades.
The teams exchanged goals midway through the opening period. Repaci got the Solar Bears on the board 10:30 into the contest with his 10th goal for a 1-0 lead. Alex Kile responded 1:18 later with his 24th of the season for a 1-1 tie.
Orlando had a golden opportunity to take over the game after a 5 minute charging major to Florida defenseman Zach Berzolla with 1:46 to go in the first, but was unable to generate any offense.
Florida took over the contest in the second with three goals against Lackey. Logan Roe’s sixth of the season at the 5:38 mark put the Everblades up 2-1. Kile added his second of the night at the 11:47 mark for a 3-1 lead, then Luke Nogard’s sixth with 6:03 to go in the second put Florida ahead 4-1.
Orlando finally showed some life in their final regular season period, outshooting the Everblades 18-5, but could not fully rally. Repaci completed his first professional hat trick with goals at the 3:40 mark and with 8 seconds to go in regulation to get the Solar Bears to within one, but it was not enough, and Orlando finished what looked to be a promising season despite real life on a three game losing streak.
Lackey finished with 26 saves on 30 shots.
Kelly Cup Playoffs:
With the regular season coming to an end after Saturday’s action, here are the final Eastern Conference standings:
- xyz-Florida: 69 GP, 42-19-5-3, 92 points, .667 pct
- x-Greenville: 72 GP, 38-19-12-3, 91 points, .632 pct
- x-Indy: 69 GP, 37-24-8-0, 82 points, .594 pct
- x-South Carolina: 70 GP, 34-23-10-3, 81 points, .579 pct
- Orlando: 72 GP, 36-29-6-1, 79 points, .549 pct
- Jacksonville: 71 GP, 34-30-3-4, 75 points, .528 pct
Florida clinched the Eastern Conference regular season title with an overtime win over Greenville on Wednesday, which also cemented second place for the Swamp Rabbits. The Everblades also won the Brabham Cup on Saturday, clinching the ECHL’s best regular season record. Indy grabbed their spot with a win over Kansas City on Wednesday.
I will have a season wrap up with all the stats and numbers coming soon. After that, stay tuned for signings, protected lists, and free agency as preparations for the 2021-2022 season get underway.