ORLANDO, FLA – With his brother and sister both in Sochi, Russia competing for the USA in the Winter Olympics, Blake Kessel has plenty of reasons to be a proud sibling. Thursday night at the Amway Center, he surely made them proud with a golden goal of his own.
Kessel scored the game-winning goal with 1:30 left in regulation to lift the Orlando Solar Bears to a thrilling 2-1 victory over the South Carolina Stingrays in front of a delirious home crowd of 5,326. The win brought the Solar Bears current win streak to four and rocketed Orlando into a tie for third in the ECHL’s Eastern conference standings.
Kessel’s sixth, and arguably most important to this point, goal of the season was as much about instinct and confidence as it was about skill. With J.T. Barnett and Tyler Murovich working along the boards, the young defenseman pinched in from the point, putting him in the right place to catch a carom. He then took advantage of a seam in the Stingrays defense, curling through the faceoff circle toward the slot before ripping a shot that was perfectly placed over the shoulder of South Carolina goalie Jeff Jakaitis and just under the crossbar.
“I saw two guys (Barnett and Murovich) in the corner and then we had C.J. (Severyn) up high in the slot. He and I communicated that I could pinch down the wall and try to stay on their forward,” Kessel said about his game-winner. “The puck just happened to bounce out there after those two guys did great work. They popped it to the middle and I was able to move it to the middle and just tried to get it on the net and luckily it went over his shoulder.”
As big as Tuesday’s win over the Stingrays was, Thursday’s may have been even bigger. It marked the first time all season that Orlando (26-16-1-2) had put together strong defensive performances against the team many consider to be the best in the east. Playing in front of a couple of NHL scouts as well as representatives of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it proved that the Solar Bears will be a team to be reckoned with as the rest of the season and the playoffs play out.
“I think we wanted to prove that we could play with a team like that and beat them. That’s something that we needed to do,” Kessel said. “We have a few games in hand on the rest of the league actually standings-wise. We need to make sure that those games in hand are going to count. If you lose them, they mean nothing so we wanted to really put an emphasis on that. We haven’t been able to put a full sixty minutes together against them (South Carolina) but the last couple of games we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
South Carolina (30-13-1-3) certainly is own share of incentive to win heading into the game. Getting revenge for Tuesday’s loss was a given but with head coach Spencer Carbery missing the contest to celebrate the birth of his daughter, trying to win for interim head coach Ryan Warsofsky (older brother of Boston Bruins system defenseman David Warsofsky) who was making his first ever appearance as a head coach played into the equation.
The teams battled through a scoreless first period as Jakaitis and Solar Bears netminder Tyler Beskorowany made it apparent that goals would be at a premium all night long. The Stingrays broke the drought 2:14 into the middle frame when Scott Campbell turned what looked like an even up rush into a goal when he surprised Beskorowany with a quick wrister that caught the top corner of the net.
Orlando’s answer back came a little over two minutes later off the stick of Mickey Lang who capitalized on a Stingrays defensive blue line turnover by lasering a shot just inside the near post on Jakaitis. It was Lang’s 27th goal of the season (10th as a member of the Solar Bears) and his fifth tally in just over four periods of play.
Defense and goaltending became the norm from that point on the netminders regained control. Beskorowany and Jakaitis were on a mission to see who was the better goalie and neither disappointed. On this night, the difference seemed to be the Orlando defense which allowed a total of twelve shots on net in the final forty minutes of play.
“Obviously it starts from our net out and Tyler did a good job here coming in. Our defense has been better lately – battling, competing a lot harder, managing the puck better,” Solar Bears head coach Vince Williams said. “The key tonight was doing a better job, which we did in the third period, of managing their forecheck and their press and having the center low on the breakout. It was a good step here. Collectively, it’s a group (effort). Team defense is going to help down the stretch here.”
After Kessel’s goal, South Carolina still has some time to try to send the game to overtime. A penalty in the final minute to Orlando’s Cody Wild gave the Stingrays a man advantage but the Solar Bears did not allow the visitors to get a clean look at the net before time ran out.
As for the battle for family supremacy, Blake Kessel still trails sister Amanda (four points) and brother Phil (three points) in the two week Olympic scoring race. He said that although it would be fun to top his siblings, there are more important things to think about.
“I definitely have some work to do to try to catch up a little bit,” he said. “I’m just worrying about our wins. We’re in a tight playoff situation here. (With) 27 games left, I’m more concentrated on the wins right now than getting a few points.”
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