The Solar Bears put forth a full effort in practice on Wednesday, as the team prepared for its flight north on Thursday morning, where they’ll eventually make their way to the banks of the Ohio River valley for two games this weekend against the Wheeling Nailers at WesBanco Arena.
The Nailers are a team that Orlando has played sporadically over the past eight seasons, most recently splitting a pair of games on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1, with Orlando taking the final contest by a 5-2 score.
The Solar Bears have historically had strong outings against the Nailers at WesBanco Arena, with a lifetime 6-1-0-0 record, outscoring their opponent by a 32-16 margin.
With Saturday’s season-opening 4-2 loss at Florida in the rearview mirror, Solar Bears head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky wants to see his team tighten things up heading into this weekend’s series.
“We still want to focus on our defensive zone - that’s where we struggled last game,” Berehowsky said. “We gave up two goals real fast because we’ve lost coverage. We want to be able to build from the back-end and out.”
Wheeling underwent a coaching change this summer, naming Mark French the team’s new bench boss. French most recently had coached in Switzerland, but had led the AHL’s Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup title in 2009-10.
The Nailers, a longtime affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, have often benefited from their parent club supplying them with a fairly significant number of contracted players from year to year — last season, the Nailers had 10 players on AHL or NHL deals on their roster. This season is slightly different; the Nailers’ roster currently only has two contracted players assigned to the club.
Wheeling, however, loaded up via ECHL free agency, plucking former Greenville Swamp Rabbits captain Michael Pelech, former Solar Bears forward Patrick Watling and, perhaps their biggest coup of the offseason, inked former Colorado Eagles Kelly Cup Playoffs MVP Michael Joly.
“They’ll be a well-prepared team,” Berehowsky said. “We have to go out and be disciplined and play our game within our structure.”
Spencer back in familiar surroundings
The Solar Bears announced earlier in the week that the club had signed defenseman Matthew Spencer. The former second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning played part of last season with Orlando before the Lightning traded him to the Buffalo Sabres in November 2019. When his contract was not renewed by Buffalo this summer, the opportunity to return to Orlando was a welcome one for the 23-year-old Spencer.
“Over the course of the summer I was doing my best to keep training hard in the anticipation of a new contract whether that was coming from the AHL or ECHL, but as time went on it seemed clear that the ECHL would be a better option for the time being,” Spencer said following Wednesday’s practice. “Being able to play real games after so much time off was something very important to me, and luckily Orlando was one of the teams still moving ahead with playing this season. I ultimately reached out to Drake and the coaches to see if there was a spot available, and luckily things worked out.”
Berehowsky is looking forward to have the ability to insert Spencer, a right-shot defenseman, into the lineup once again.
“I thought he enjoyed his time here, he was very coachable and he got along with everybody,” Berehowsky said. “I thought he would be a good fit.”
Spencer is appreciative of the opportunity to get back to work.
“I feel that I’m ready to contribute to the team right away. I understand there is a bit of a learning curve when getting back into actual games, but I took my summer training seriously with the understanding that I could be jumping into a season at any point.”
Thomson fitting in
Ben Thomson, signed earlier this week by Orlando, is hard to miss when he takes the ice. The veteran forward checks in at 6-foot-3, 215-pounds, a slight cut above his line mates for the week, Jimmy Huntington and J.J. Piccinich.
The 27-year-old Thomson already appears keen to carve out his role amongst the trio.
“They’re two very skilled players. It took a little bit to get my legs under me, but I think we will gel well together and be a productive offensive line this weekend.”
“He’s a big body, he can skate and he can shoot the puck,” Berehowsky said of his veteran acquisition. “He’ll hopefully be able to work the corners, and the three of them can skate, so hopefully he’s able to dominate down low.”