Solar Bears Den: Running Out of Time

Orlando heads west and gets swept by the best team in the ECHL, pushing themselves further out of the race.

As if fighting for their playoff lives wasn’t enough of a challenge for the Orlando Solar Bears, the ECHL schedule makers threw another hurdle their way this week: a trip west to Boise, Idaho, for a three-game week-long set against the runaway best team in the ECHL this season, the Idaho Steelheads. Idaho not only had already clinched a spot in the Kelly Cup playoffs, but they also had clinched the Mountain Division title. A team that ranks first in the ECHL in both goals for and goals against. A team that was riding a 12-game home winning streak coming into the week, and had lost just three times in regulation on home ice all season long. No big deal, right?

After a 0-2-1-0 week, not only did Orlando get to see just how dominant Idaho can be, they now find themselves on the near brink of elimination from a postseason spot with just 9 games remaining in the regular season.

Transaction Wire:

-Orlando received some offensive help from the AHL ranks at the start of the week, as Tyler Bird returned from his brief PTO stint with San Jose and Jaydon Dureau was reassigned by Syracuse.

-Goaltender Garret Sparks found his way back to the AHL on Wednesday, signing a PTO with the Springfield Thunderbirds. Jimmy Poreda was activated from reserve to take Sparks’ spot on the roster.

-Orlando made one trade on ECHL Trade Deadline day on Thursday, sending forward Mathieu Foget to Kansas City for defenseman Jay Powell.

Wednesday, 3/15: Idaho 5, Orlando 4 (OT)

Before heading back east, Sparks got the nod in net in game 1 of the three-game series.

The power play—and defenseman Max Balinson—continued its recent strong run in the first, as he scored his 7th goal of the season 5:22 into the contest for a 1-0 Orlando lead.

The Steelheads found their way onto the scoreboard early in the second with a pair of goals against Sparks. Ryan Dmowski scored his 25th of the season on a power play at the 4:21 mark to tie the game up at 1.

At the 7:01 mark, a turnover in front of Sparks’ net ended up on the stick of Willie Knierim, who sent it home for his 14th of the season for a 2-1 Idaho lead.

Orlando rallied late in the second and took the lead back. Grant Mismash took a behind the net pass from Maxim Cajkovic and sent it in past Idaho goaltender Adam Scheel for his sixth of the season with 2:05 remaining in the period for a 2-2 tie.

Only 57 seconds later, the Solar Bears found themselves back in front, as Tristin Langan cleaned up in front and scored his 17th of the season for a 3-2 game.

Idaho re-tied the game early in the third, as Owen Headrick sent a slap shot from the corner past Sparks at the 7:34 mark for his 14th.

Michael Brodzinski gave the Solar Bears a 4-3 lead with 5:18 to go in regulation with a nice play for his 9th of the season.

That lead lasted all of 1:27, as Idaho tied the game yet again off a goal in front from Wade Murphy.

It was on to overtime, where with 2:37 remaining Justin Misiak took the pass from Knierim, skated near full length of the ice, and sent it in past Sparks for the game winner, setting a new franchise record for home wins for the Steelheads.

Sparks stopped 33 of 38 shots in defeat. Cajkovic had two assists.

Friday, 3/17: Idaho 6, Orlando 2

Would the luck of the Irish be with the Solar Bears in game 2 of the set on St. Patrick’s Day?

Orlando got off to a great start in the opening period, scoring twice within the first 3:25 of the game. Dureau marked his return to the lineup with his 6th of the season unassisted at the 1:02 mark, thanks to a gift from goaltender Josh Boyko, for a 1-0 lead.

On the team’s first power play of the night, Langan cashed in with his 18th off a pass from Luke McInnis for a 2-0 Solar Bears advantage.

After such a strong start against them, Idaho reminded everyone why they are the best team in the league by scoring the next six goals unanswered, five coming in a 12:20 stretch in the first. Jade Miller cut the lead in half at the 5:28 mark, with a goal that completely threw off Solar Bears goaltender Jack LaFontaine. Murphy tied the game at 2 at the 8:48 mark with his 15th.

At the 10:29 mark, Idaho jumped ahead 3-2 off a slap shot power play goal from Jordan Kawaguchi, his 23rd score of the season. Matt Register added a power play tally with 4:13 remaining in the period for a two-goal advantage. Finally, Misiak finished off a five-goal first at the 17:48 mark with his 12th, finishing off the worst first period for Orlando in terms of goals allowed this season.

Yeah, you could say Orlando may have been a little...frustrated toward the end of all of that.

After a much quieter second period, Idaho tacked on an empty net goal from Jack Becker with 4 minutes remaining in the contest for the 6-2 final.

LaFontaine stopped 26 of 31 shots. McInnis and Balinson had the lone helpers.

Saturday, 3/18: Idaho 4, Orlando 1

Could Orlando avoid the sweep and pull off the upset on Saturday in the series finale?

Much like the night before, Orlando got off to a good start in the first. Bird and Langan combined on a nice play in front, and Bird would ultimately be credited with his 16th of the season—and 34th assist for Langan—for a 1-0 lead.

Also just like the night before, Idaho took over the contest after falling behind and poured on the offense. On a power play, Knierim cleaned up in front and sent it past LaFontaine with 19 seconds remaining in the period for a 1-1 tie.

Register put the Steelheads ahead 2-1 midway through the second on a shorthanded goal.

Despite outshooting Idaho 13-6 in the third, the Solar Bears were unable to generate any further scoring on Scheel. Meanwhile, LaFontaine was pulled late for an extra skater, and Idaho cashed in twice, as Cody Haiskanen and Miller scored empty net tallies 1:21 apart late to finish off a three-game sweep for the Steelheads, who extended their home winning streak to 15 games, far and away the longest in the ECHL this season.

LaFontaine took the hard luck loss with 32 saves on 34 shots.

By only snagging one of six possible points, the Solar Bears find themselves stuck in sixth place in the South, sitting four points behind fifth place Atlanta and 8 points behind fourth place Florida for the final South playoff spot.

Kelly Cup Playoff Update:

The first team in the Eastern Conference has clinched their spot in the postseason party, and the Newfoundland Growlers had to work for it after an 11-round shootout win over Adirondack on home ice on Saturday. Later that night, Indy became the third Central team to earn their postseason place.

Additionally, the Toledo Walleye continue to win, earning their 18th in a row in a victory over Kalamazoo on Saturday. They are now five short of the league record of 23, and with 10 games remaining on their schedule, they have a shot to tie AHL Norfolk’s 28-game run in 2012 for the longest winning streak in professional sports.


Orlando returns home for a light two-game schedule, hosting Maine on Wednesday and first-place Jacksonville on Friday.