ESTERO, FLA – The evening started with the final crowning of the defending ECHL champions. Then the new kids on the block took the air out of the balloons before finally running out of breath themselves.
David Rutherford scored his second goal of the game 26 seconds into overtime to give the Florida Everblades a 5-4 victory over the expansion Orlando Solar Bears at the Germain Arena Friday night. It capped a night where the Everblades raised their 2011-2012 Kelly Cup title banner before having to survive a furious comeback by their new rivals to the north.
Rutherford’s game winner came when teammate Matt Beca, who had four points in the game, slipped the puck to Rutherford. Rutherford walked his way in front of Orlando goalie John Curry before wristing a shot home. It sent the majority of the 6,487 in attendance home happy, but at the same time relieved that the outcome went in favor of the home team.
Orlando, playing its first ever ECHL game, staged a comeback that was reminiscent of the original IHL Solar Bears franchise – referred to by many fans as the “Cardiac Kids” – because of its penchant for late heroics. The new Solar Bears scored three goals in the final five minutes of regulation to force the extra period and out shot their opponents by a 47-32 margin.
Things did not look good for the Solar Bears in the first period, as the Everblades showed why they will be a force this season. Just 2:52 into the contest, Florida took advantage of a delayed penalty on Orlando to score. Beca saw Mathieu Roy alone in front of Curry and slid a pass to the big winger who tucked the puck into the net.
Following a spirited fight between Orlando’s Josh Caron and Florida’s Leigh Salters midway through the period, the short-handed Solar Bears took a second penalty. It gave the Everblades a two-man advantage and they cashed in when Bobby Raymond collected the rebound of a Roy shot and beat Curry. Late in the stanza, Beca lit the lamp by grabbing yet another rebound and roofing a shot just under the crossbar.
Despite the 3-0 score, the Solar Bears went toe-to-toe with the Everblades when it came to shots. Each team had 14 in the opening twenty minutes, but Orlando failed to dent Florida’s John Muse. A power play to start the middle stanza allowed the Solar Bears to pull ahead on the shot board, but Muse stood tall. Florida boosted its lead to four with just over five minutes left before the intermission, when Rutherford got loose for a backhander that found the back of the net.
History was made just over a minute later, when Solar Bears forward Nick Petersen pressed the Florida net, getting off a shot and banging home his own rebound for the franchise’s first ever ECHL regular season goal. The puck and Petersen’s stick were immediately tucked away for a trip to Toronto and the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Petersen’s power play goal was just a sign of things to come. Down by three in the third period and time running down, Orlando found itself shorthanded. Forwards CJ Severyn and Ryan Cruthers harassed the Florida power play unit and eventually forced a turnover.
Severyn picked up the loose puck and fed Cruthers who snapped a shot into the top of the net over Muse. One minute later, Scott Tanski came out of the penalty box and spurred an offensive foray that culminated in Tanski depositing the rebound of a Sean Lorenz shot home. All of a sudden, the Solar Bears, who were once down by four, now trailed just 4-3 with 3:03 remaining.
With two ticks over two minutes to go in regulation, Beca took a penalty that gave Orlando a chance to tie. Solar Bears coach Drake Berehowsky pulled Curry to give his team a two-man advantage. It was the right move as former ECHL All-Rookie forward Mathew Sisca beat Muse with 31 seconds left to tie the score.
On this night the comeback would become a secondary story as Rutherford ended the Solar Bears hopes for a stunning victory with his OT winner. It did however set the stage for a return meeting at Germain Arena Saturday night and two more next weekend – just four of the 16 regular season meetings scheduled between the two Sunshine State foes.
If Friday’s contest is any indication of things to come, the ECHL has another classic rivalry on its hands.
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