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Solar Bears Den: Hanging on by a Thread

Orlando is clinging to a playoff spot after a 0-1-2 week.

Fernando Medina/Orlando Solar Bears

We have reached the homestretch of the ECHL regular season, and the Orlando Solar Bears need every standings point they can get.

After briefly falling out of the fourth and final playoff spot in the South Division, the Solar Bears hoped to get some breathing room between them and fifth place Greenville. Unfortunately, a 0-1-2 week did not help with that cause, and with just five games to go in the regular season, it’s going to go down to the wire.

News and Notes:

-It was not a bad first week in Florida for goaltender Alexei Melnichuk. After a successful debut that saw him go 2-0 in 3 appearances, he was named the Warrior Hockey ECHL Goaltender of the Week, becoming the second Solar Bears goaltender to earn that honor this season (Brad Barone won the award in late November).

-After making just one appearance, forward Matt Berry was released on Thursday.

Game #64, Friday 4/1: South Carolina 4, Orlando 3 (OT)

The Solar Bears kicked off April with a trip north to South Carolina to take on the Stingrays in the first of a home and home set.

Ross Olsson got things off to a great start for Orlando in the first, scoring his first Solar Bears goal 36 seconds after puck drop for a 1-0 lead. Jonny Evans tied the game at 1 for the Stingrays at the 4:57 mark.

South Carolina jumped out to a 2-1 lead at the 4:27 mark of the second with a power play goal from Kevin O’Neil. Derek Gentile put the hosts up by two just over four minutes later with his 12th of the season. Aaron Luchuk then brought Orlando to within a goal with 7:51 to go in the period with his 15th of the season.

Luke McInnis completed the Orlando rally with 11:52 to go in regulation, tying the game at 3 with his 7th of the season, snagging at least one crucial point for the Solar Bears as the contest went into overtime. With less than a minute remaining in the extra frame, O’Neil scored his second of the night to give the Stingrays the win.

Melnichuk stopped 29 of 33 South Carolina shots in defeat. McInnis and five others had one assist each.

Game #65, Saturday 4/2: South Carolina 7, Orlando 3

The Solar Bears returned to the Amway Center on Saturday for the second half of the home and home set with the Stingrays, hoping to hold onto fourth place in the South.

This game was all Stingrays from the start, as they dropped four goals in the first 20 minutes. Kevin Fitzgerald got things started at the 2:04 mark with his first goal of the season for a 1-0 lead. Carter Turnbull made it 2-0 at the 8:04 mark, and after giving up 2 goals on just 4 shots faced, Zach Emond’s night was over early in favor of Barone, making his first appearance since March 19th.

The change in goaltender at first looked to help Orlando, as Maxim Cajkovic cut the lead in half at the 10:35 mark with his 8th goal.

O’Neil picked up his third goal in two days with 3:50 to go in the period to restore South Carolina’s two-goal lead. Finally, Cam Strong scored his sixth as time expired in the period for a 4-1 Stingrays advantage.

In a relatively quiet second period, the Stingrays took a 5-1 lead at the 8:55 mark on a Lawton Courtnall goal.

Tristin Langan tried to rally the Solar Bears in the third, cutting the deficit to 5-2 at the 9:30 mark with his 15th goal of the season.

With Barone pulled, O’Neil continued his domination of the Solar Bears in the two-game set, sending the puck into the empty net with 4:13 remaining for a 6-2 lead. 40 seconds later, Luke Boka scored his 16th to make it 6-3.

With the Orlando net empty again, Strong scored the extra point with 2:09 remaining for the final 7-3 score. The Orlando loss, combined with a Greenville win over Atlanta, pushed the Solar Bears out of the fourth and final playoff spot.

Barone stopped 22 of 25 shots in relief of Emond and was tagged with the loss.

Monday Moves: Prior to Monday’s contest, Emond was recalled to San Jose, while Shawn Element rejoined the Solar Bears from Syracuse for his second stint with Orlando.

Game #66, Monday 4/4: Florida 3, Orlando 2 (OT)

For the last time in the regular season, the Solar Bears and Everblades faced off, with fourth place on the line for Orlando after Greenville took a regulation loss on Sunday.

Luchuk got the Solar Bears on the board 6:07 into the first with his 16th goal of the season.

It did not take long for the visitors to come back and take the lead in the middle frame. Blake Winiecki tied the game at 1 for the Everblades 88 seconds in, then Alex Aleardi followed with his 28th of the season 57 seconds later for a 2-1 advantage.

Orlando tied the game at 2 with 14:23 remaining in the third as Tye Felhaber found himself alone on a breakaway and connected for his 5th goal of the season.

It was on to overtime for the second time in four days for Orlando, and just like on Friday, they were unable to snag the extra point. Jake Jaremko’s 16th with 1:28 to go in the extra session gave Florida the 3-2 win.

Melnichuk had 28 saves on 31 shots. Also of note, he got in his fifth game, which means if Orlando should make the postseason he will be eligible to play.

Kelly Cup Playoff Update:

Through Monday night, here’s where the South Division stands with 2 weeks remaining in the regular season:

  1. x-Atlanta: 67 GP, 42-21-3-1, 88 points, .657 pct.
  2. x-Florida: 67 GP, 38-19-6-4, 86 points, .642 pct.
  3. Jacksonville: 66 GP, 37-24-3-2, 79 points, .598 pct.
  4. Orlando: 66 GP, 31-28-6-1, 69 points, .523 pct.
  5. Greenville: 65 GP, 29-27-5-4, 67 points, .515 pct.

Atlanta and Florida officially clinched their postseason invites this week, leaving just two spots open in the South. Jacksonville looks to be a lock for the #3 position, so it appears to be a fight to the finish for the Solar Bears and the Swamp Rabbits.

Upcoming:

Orlando hosts Norfolk on Wednesday and Thursday in a light penultimate week of the regular season. In a series to keep an eye on, Greenville will host Rapid City in a three-game set Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.