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Tufto settles in as Solar Bears prepare for Nailers

Thursday, January 13th
Tufto settles in as Solar Bears prepare for Nailers

With no Orlando Magic games or concerts at Amway Center this week, the Orlando Solar Bears have been afforded the rare opportunity to remain at their game rink for practices, following Monday night’s 2-1 victory over the South Carolina Stingrays.

That suits head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky just fine, as the team hasn’t needed to vacate its locker room and the players can focus on re-commitment to the coaching staff’s structure and systems.

After goals from Dmitry Semykin and Luke McInnis built a 2-0 lead before Monday’s game was even three minutes old, the Solar Bears began to commit too many turnovers and spent far too much time in the defensive zone to Berehowsky’s liking.

“I just think we have to work and we have to execute our gameplan better; I don’t think we did that,” said Berehowsky when asked for his thoughts on Monday’s win. “We did it for the first three minutes and then we kind of took our foot off the gas pedal. The players know, and they agree that they weren’t happy with it either, so we just have to continue to work and improve, and we’ve got to learn from games like that.”

With a three-in-three home set against the Wheeling Nailers looming this weekend, Berehowsky and associate coach Jared Staal will jump into their pre-scout sessions with players on Thursday. The Nailers are right in the thick of the Central Division playoff race, but have dropped their last four games under first-year head coach Derek Army and will likely be without the services of Patrick Watling, as the former Solar Bears forward was loaned by the Nailers to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL this morning.

“We just want to worry about our game right now, and tomorrow we’ll look at what they do well, and we’ll put together a gameplan from that,” Berehowsky said.

Tufto hoping to ‘blossom’ as he finds his game

Solar Bears fans will likely have a chance to get their first look at Odeen Tufto, the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect reassigned from Syracuse on Tuesday, this Friday when the Solar Bears take on the Nailers.

The undrafted free agent was signed by the Bolts to a one-year entry-level contract last March after concluding a four-year college hockey career with Quinnipiac University, where he captained the Bobcats in his senior season and led the country with 39 assists. The 5-foot-7, 174-pound forward has been limited to only two games (both with Syracuse) this season after undergoing surgery last June.

“Anytime you have an injury that goes over a long time, you lose your confidence and your game a little bit, so for me, I want to get back to growing my game and confidence, and hopefully everything will just blossom,” Tufto said.

Wednesday marked Tufto’s first skate on the ice of the AdventHealth Rink, and the forward appeared hungry for the opportunity, skating on a line with Hunter Fejes and Tristin Langan.

“I think I’ll bring my speed, those guys are two bigger bodies, so that helps me create space, and I’ve always been more of a passer than a shooter, so as long as those guys can find the open areas, I can feed them and just use my skill and creativity, and we’ll just get hard on puck and I think that’ll lead to success.”

Berehowsky has liked what he’s seen out of the latest addition to his roster.

“He’s going to get his ice time, and he looks like a pretty good player out there and he can skate,” Berehowsky said. “He came down with a great attitude, I’ve talked to him a couple of times now, and he seems like he’s on board, and he wants to get into games, get better and get back to that next level.”

Being reunited with fellow Lightning prospects Semykin, Alexey Lipanov and Amir Miftakhov, along with Tyler Bird and Tristin Langan, who each appeared with Syracuse at the start of the season, means there is a level of familiarity with the roster for Tufto, but the welcome wagon was in full effect the moment he landed in Orlando.

Tufto has also maintained a strong friendship with Jackson Keane over the years, and Keane personally volunteered to pick Tufto up at the airport Tuesday night. The two played together on the Sioux City Musketeers in 2016-17 after a trade brought Tufto to the USHL club, and helped Sioux City make a run to the Clark Cup Final. The two remained in touch despite their brief time together in juniors, and as Tufto got word that he would be reassigned to the Solar Bears earlier this week, he gave his old buddy a heads up.

“I just texted ’Staalsy’ and offered to come pick him up, so it was good to go get him [at the airport] and see him for a bit,” Keane said.

When asked for an assessment of Tufto, Keane offered the following scouting report: “He’s a really good skater, really smart, he’s not a huge guy but he makes up for it in other areas.”

No sophomore slump for McInnis

McInnis was retroactively credited with the game-winning goal in Monday’s victory over South Carolina, after it was determined that his shot from the left point did not make contact with Tristin Langan on its way to the net.

That score correction gave McInnis his sixth goal of the season, which as of Wednesday is tied for the ECHL goal-scoring lead among Eastern Conference defensemen. The second-year pro has five points (3g-2a) in his last three games. Not even halfway through the campaign, and McInnis has already eclipsed his point totals from the 2020-21 season.

Berehowsky has been bullish on the play of his young defenseman.

“He’s played well all year long. He came into camp in great shape and he was ready to go; last year he had an injury at the start of the season,” Berehowsky said. “I think this year he feels more comfortable, and he’s playing well, you can see it on the ice that he’s playing with more confidence.”

“I think that being here your second year, being more comfortable with the system, the coaches, the environment, knowing the league…having that year under your belt helps a lot,” McInnis said, when asked what’s led to his offensive surge. “Just confidence-wise, maybe being able to take that extra second to make a play that I wouldn’t have done last year, where I would have just thrown [the puck] up the glass.”

That confidence to make plays has led to McInnis making valuable offensive contributions: the team is 8-0-1-0 when McInnis records a point, although he noted that sixth-year pro Michael Brodzinski, who he’s been paired with for much of the season, has been a big reason for his success.

“Back there we just have fun. It’s a blast playing with him - he’s taught me a lot,” McInnis explained. “He’s kind of the player I want to be: he’s always involved, always offensive, plays well but takes care of his back end. He’s a great ‘D’ partner to have, and we have a good time back there.”

Brodzinksi is equally complimentary of his defensive partner.

“It’s been a lot of fun playing together, he’s a little energy bug that gets us going,” Brodzinski said. “He’s a guy who likes to have fun on the ice, and it just makes it easier for me. We both like to move the puck quick and get up in the play, so if I see him going, I stay back, and vice-versa, so we just feed off of each other.”

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