FORT WAYNE, IND – With the end of a long three week road trip in sight, the Orlando Solar Bears rolled into Fort Wayne Wednesday night looking for two very important points in the standings. It may not have been easy but the visitors got exactly what they were looking for.
Paced by a four point performance from Jake Cepis and a record-tying effort by goalie Cody Reichard, Orlando gutted out a 5-4 win over the host Komets at the Memorial Coliseum. The victory moved the Solar Bears within one point of third place South Carolina and three points of first place Kalamazoo and Reading in the ECHL’s Eastern conference.
The one and only regular season meeting between the two teams had more storylines than just the playoff race. The biggest was the return to Fort Wayne for forward Mickey Lang since the Komets traded him to Orlando in December. By the end of the game, everyone was talking about Cepis, who with Lang and Taylor Matson combined for eight points and Reichard who faced 50 shots and stopped 46.
Lang and his teammates looked like they were going to run away with the game early, scoring twice before the game was six minutes old. The first came off the stick of Brad Ross when he took a cross-ice pass from Lang and hammered a shot past Komets goalie Ben Meisner for a power play goal and his first score as a Solar Bear. Less than three minutes later, Cepis set up captain Eric Baier for a bomb that found its way inside the left goal post and into the back of the net.
Fort Wayne (28-22-6-5, 67 points) fought back led by forward Mike Embach who had a big night himself. Embach got the Komets on the board at the 7:41 mark of the frame when his shot snuck inside the post behind Reichard. Shawn Szydlowski evened the score seven minutes later when he redirected a Jordan Southorn shot home during a power play. Then with 17.6 seconds left before the first intermission, Embach took a pass from Brandon Marino and tucked a backhander past Reichard to give the Komets the lead.
Lang, who was booed by the Fort Wayne fans for the events that led to the trade, had no intentions of allowing his new team to lose. 29 seconds into the middle period, Cepis got a hold of the puck in the Komets defensive end. He quickly found Lang who ripped a shot to the top left corner of the net for his league-leading 39th goal and a tie game.
The game took an unexpected turn at the 7:19 mark during a stoppage in play. Meisner started skating toward the Komets bench but stumbled. He got back on his skates and once again fell, prompting the athletic trainer to rush out. Meisner was unable to continue, forcing Fort Wayne to put emergency backup netminder Larkin Saalfrank between the pipes.
The change in net seemed to spur Fort Wayne’s offense on. Deciding that the best defense is a good offense, the Komets took over the game, pouring shots on Reichard at will. Reichard stood on his head, making save after save and it paid off when Connor Goggin put a slap shot behind Saalfrank to give the Solar Bears the lead.
Orlando (37-20-2-2, 78 points) had a golden opportunity to increase the lead before the end of the stanza when overlapping Fort Wayne penalties gave the visitors almost two full minutes with a two man advantage. The Komets proved why they have the second best penalty killing units in the league by holding the Solar Bears to one shot on net during the power play.
Unfazed by the missed opportunity, the Solar Bears upped their margin to two goals three ticks shy of three minutes into the final period. Lang did the work, getting the puck below the goal line and feeding Cepis for a slap shot that hit the top corner of the net from the slot. It would prove to be an important tally when Embach completed his hat trick less than a minute later to cut the lead to 5-4.
Reichard took over the game from there, standing up to the continued onslaught of shots from the Komets. Each successive save frustrated the Fort Wayne players to no end. As the game came down to the closing seconds, Reichard made save number 46 to equal the ECHL franchise record set back in January by Ross MacKinnon. It came on shot number 50, the most the Solar Bears have allowed in a game since joining the league.
Orlando’s road odyssey will come to an end this weekend. It won’t be easy as they play two games against South Carolina, one of the teams it is chasing. How things go could set the tone for the final nine games of the regular season and into the first round of the Kelly Cup playoffs.
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