As the old Yogi Berra saying goes, it gets late early out there.
You can say the same for the Orlando Solar Bears’ regular season, as the team started the week with just 14 regular season games remaining, and quite a bit of ground to make up in the ECHL’s South Division if they want to play beyond mid-April.
There were just two games on the schedule for the team this week—both on home ice against South foes—and the team managed to earn a split, but could not get out of sixth place.
One Comes Down, One Goes Up
-After a brief visit to Syracuse, forward Maxim Cajkovic was reassigned to the Solar Bears on Thursday. He went scoreless in a pair of contests for the Crunch.
-Forward Tyler Bird earned his first AHL PTO of the season on Saturday, joining San Jose, where he made three appearances last season for the Barracuda. He made his season debut in a 6-3 loss in Bakersfield, going scoreless.
Friday, 3/10: Atlanta 6, Orlando 4
The most important game of the season came calling on Friday evening, as the Solar Bears had another chance to overtake Atlanta in the division standings.
How we line up tonight!— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 10, 2023
https://t.co/mykncF4uDv via @FloHockey pic.twitter.com/pjv6l7h7zC
The Gladiators got on the board first late in the opening period, as Bode Wilde got a shot from the corner past Solar Bears goaltender Jack Lafontaine with 3:14 remaining in the period for a 1-0 advantage.
Orlando’s special teams once again cashed in early in the second, as a Ross Olsson pass from behind the Atlanta net found its way to Grant Mismash, who knocked it home for his 5th of the season at the :53 second mark to tie the game at 1. (Also, the celly and the hug from the captain topped it off.)
@GMish16 with a sneaky shot in the corner pic.twitter.com/pacCTG2406— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 11, 2023
Things went downhill for the Solar Bears after that, as Atlanta took over the game with three unanswered goals in a span of 3:13 late in the period. Wilde put the Gladiators ahead 2-1 with his second of the night at the 16:39 mark. Cody Sylvester added his 29th goal of the season 1:15 later to put Atlanta ahead by two. A Sanghoon Shin goal with 8 seconds remaining in the period put the Solar Bears down 4-1—and spelled the end of the evening for Lafontaine, as he was replaced by Garret Sparks.
Atlanta continued their offensive onslaught in the third, going up 5-1 at the 10:07 mark on Tyson Empey’s third goal of the season. Orlando decided to make things interesting late in regulation, though—Mathieu Foget grabbed a pass from Max Balinson and sent it home for his 11th of the season with 5:40 to go to cut the lead to 5-2.
@mynameisfoget getting it done! pic.twitter.com/TmmI0OCzXL— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 11, 2023
Olsson continued his power play dominance, scoring his 26th of the season 1:15 later for a 5-3 contest.
@rolsson17 makes it look easy pic.twitter.com/nUROSfN1mW— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 11, 2023
Shin put a stop to any chance of a Solar Bears comeback by scoring his second of the night into an empty net with 1:31 to go for a 6-3 Atlanta lead.
For good measure, Olsson added his second of the night—again on a power play—with 37 seconds remaining to make it 6-4.
@rolsson17 power play king pic.twitter.com/yzIDdkVnnS— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 11, 2023
Olsson’s 14 power play goals are tied for first among all ECHL skaters.
With the loss, Orlando fell back into sixth in the South, three points behind Atlanta and 8 points out of a playoff spot.
LaFontaine stopped 16 of 20 shots in just under 40 minutes, while Sparks stopped 11 of 12 in relief. Olsson and Mismash each had three-point games.
And now, for your ECHL Fun Fact of the Day:
Note: In their respective losses tonight, both the @KalamazooWings and @OrlandoHockey were not called for a penalty. There have been nearly 100 instances of one team going penalty-free in an ECHL game but to have that happen twice in one night is exceedingly rare.— ECHL Week (@ECHLWeek) March 11, 2023
Sunday, 3/12: Orlando 4, Jacksonville 3 (OT)
Orlando looked to rebound to close out the light weekend by hosting first place Jacksonville.
Our crew— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 12, 2023
https://t.co/mykncF3WNX via @FloHockey pic.twitter.com/xv5Ls6pO6e
Sunday afternoon was also the annual Hockey Fights Cancer game for the Solar Bears.
Join us tomorrow for Hockey Fights Cancer Night and tell us who you fight for #OSBFightsCancer— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 11, 2023
Be there! ️ https://t.co/oinhZyjAVz pic.twitter.com/yqkJx3wcRg
We fight for YOU #OSBFightsCancer pic.twitter.com/OKtVY8KxAZ— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 12, 2023
Balinson got things off to a good start in the opening period, picking up his sixth of the season 2:46 into the contest for a 1-0 lead.
@maxbalinson doesn't waste any time pic.twitter.com/6LS96bNF01— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 12, 2023
With 4:01 remaining in the period, Jacksonville got onto the scoresheet as former Solar Bear Ryan Lohin tied the game at 1 with a tip-in in front.
Lohin struck again early in the second, as he sent his second of the day past Sparks on a power play to put the visitors ahead by a goal. Orlando responded just over five minutes later, as Bennett MacArthur decided to just do it himself and score on a nice breakaway for his 9th of the season and a 2-2 deadlock.
@BennettMac doesn't need any help pic.twitter.com/0gyzjHvQTM— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 12, 2023
Jacksonville continued the seesaw battle in the third. Brandon Yeamans took the initial shot that was stopped by Sparks, but he was able to grab his own rebound and the second time he was not going to miss it. His third goal of the season at the 1:19 mark put the Icemen back in front 3-2.
Again, the Solar Bears had a response. Newcomer Nathan Burke and Matthew Barnaby both made attempts on Jacksonville goaltender Olof Lindbom, but Brayden Guy grabbed the rebound in front and sent it in for a 3-3 tie with 11:18 to go in regulation.
@brayden_guy9 gets it done! pic.twitter.com/yx7lIft28p— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 12, 2023
Sixty minutes was not enough to settle this one, so it was on to overtime. With just under three minutes remaining, Lindbom made the initial save on a shot from Mismash—but Cajkovic ended up with the rebound on his stick, and he promptly sent it home for the game winning marker, giving the Solar Bears two much needed points. Also, think Cajkovic was pumped up to get that goal?
@max_cajkovic88 with the winning shot! pic.twitter.com/wwIrKJuL3M— Orlando Solar Bears (@OrlandoHockey) March 12, 2023
Sparks stopped 23 of 26 Icemen shots for his seventh win since returning to Orlando. Burke earned his first two professional points since joining the team from Bowling Green State University on Monday.
With the win, Orlando remains one point behind Atlanta for 5th place in the South, and 6 points behind South Carolina for the 4th playoff spot.
Kelly Cup Playoff Update:
Mid-March brings two traditions to minor league hockey—college free agents get signed, and playoff spots are clinched.
Three Western Conference teams have already punched their postseason tickets: Toledo, Cincinnati, and Idaho. The Walleye have been on a major heater in recent weeks, riding a 16-game winning streak. The ECHL record is 23 by South Carolina set in 2015, if anyone was wondering. On their tail are the Cyclones, who are riding a 15-game point streak (13-0-1-1), and sit one point behind for first place in the division.
However, it looks like the road to the Kelly Cup may be going through Idaho, as the Steelheads have not only clinched a playoff spot, they have already clinched the Mountain Division title, with an astounding 33-point lead over second place Kansas City. The team has lost just 9 games in regulation, and their goaltenders rank number 2 and 3 in the league in goals against average. Speaking of which...
Orlando hits the road this week for a three-game series in Boise, facing the Steelheads on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.