After a critical 7-4 win over the Norfolk last Thursday, the Orlando Solar Bears were rewarded with two days off before resuming practices at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den on Sunday morning.
As the final week of the 2021-22 regular season opened on Monday, the team remained at its practice facility preparing for its final three games - what are essentially must-win matches at this point - over the next five days.
The Solar Bears face the Jacksonville Icemen on Tuesday in the home finale, before visiting the Greenville Swamp Rabbits on Friday, and concluding the regular season on Saturday in Jacksonville.
However, even if the Solar Bears win all three of its games, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee Orlando will have qualified for the 2022 Kelly Cup Playoffs.
Because several teams are playing fewer than the typical 72 games that comprise an ECHL club’s regular season schedule, the league determined midway through the season that final standings would be calculated based on points percentage, rather than outright points.
The Solar Bears are currently battling Greenville in a sprint to the finish line, with the prize being the fourth and final seed in the South Division. Orlando presently needs a combination of nine points derived from points earned by the Solar Bears and lost by Greenville, which has four games remaining. That will ensure the Solar Bears’ points percentage will remain higher than that of the Swamp Rabbits.
The Solar Bears players and coaches have been able to reconcile with the challenge that lies before them. But the team is not looking too far ahead beyond Tuesday’s home-ice clash with Jacksonville.
“We're prepared…we know what we're up against, but we’ve got the confidence in the room,” defenseman and captain Kevin Lohan said. “I think everyone still believes and still has confidence that we're gonna take care of business on our end and give ourselves a chance.
“We just need to take it one game at a time. We kind of know the scenario that has to play out, but you can't get there without winning one game at a time, so that's our mindset right now.”
Head coach and general manager Drake Berehowsky has kept things simple for his team in practice.
“We came in [yesterday] and got in a good sweat, and then today we worked on a lot of the structural stuff,” Berehowsky said. “We just wanted to review it quickly, and then the rest of the week, we’ll make adjustments following Tuesday.”
What will be the formula for success against the Icemen tomorrow? One only has to look at how the team performed in last Thursday’s victory against the Admirals.
“I think we all played the right way within our system, and how it’s intended - you had everybody up and down the lineup playing the right way, and everybody was committed to playing the right way,” Berehowsky said. “I think our leadership group did a good job of making sure we had full buy-in and and we had success.”
Lohan leading by example
It’s been a season of ups and downs for Lohan, who succeeded Chris LeBlanc in the primary leadership role within the locker room at the start of the season. The fourth-year pro is hopeful that he can guide his team back to the postseason for the first time since his rookie season, when Orlando advanced to the second round.
“It's been an honor to lead this organization, especially this group of guys this season. It's been a team effort all year. we have great leadership group in the room,” Lohan said. “It's been frustrating at points where we've kind of shot ourselves in the foot, because we know we’re better than we've been at times, but we still have a chance.
“Everyone is still all-in and we still have the belief that we could make it into the playoffs, and we all know once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. We believe we have a team that could go all the way.”
Lohan also has his coach’s endorsement.
“We try and always give the leadership group responsibility, so you know they've always managed to come in we have a relationship we’ve built with them just like all our players, but we want them to have a say,” Berehowsky said. “It is their team and we want the players to have a say in what we do and the decisions we make as well.”
Questions in net?
The reassignment of goaltender Amir Miftakhov by the Tampa Bay Lightning last Friday places Orlando in a potential goaltending quagmire. All AHL and NHL-contracted players assigned to the ECHL are required to have played in at least five games to be eligible for a postseason roster.
Miftakhov, the 2020 sixth-round selection of the Lightning, has only played in three games with Orlando this season, and sports a .922 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Orlando also has Brad Barone (tied for second in the ECHL with 23 wins) and fellow Lightning prospect netminder Alexei Melnichuk (who garnered Goaltender of the Week honors following his first week with the club in late March) on its roster.
In fact, in an effort to ensure Melnichuk would be compliant with the games played requirement, Berehowsky started Melnichuk for the opening shift in Orlando’s game against Greenville on March 27, before replacing him with Zach Émond following the first stoppage in play - though it was only a 39-second appearance, it nonetheless counted.
Berehowsky, however, was unwilling to tip his hand with respect to naming a starter for Tuesday, or how he would incorporate Miftakhov into the rotation.
Keeping things loose
Despite the pressure the players are no doubt feeling, they don’t appear to at least outwardly show it.
Take Cole Moberg, for instance. The defenseman engaged in a playful water bottle fight with Luke McInnis and Shawn Element near the end of Monday’s on-ice session.
“Just joking around, trying to keep things loose around the room,” Moberg said. “It started with me and ‘Elly,’ and then I sprayed Luke; he didn’t like it, so then they both started coming after me - it is what it is. Always good to have fun.”