ORLANDO, Fla. – As the push for the ECHL playoffs ramps up, tension rises and nerves get frayed. Every little thing can set players and coaches off, especially if the team ending up on the short end of events is on the outside of the post-season invitation list looking in.
Thursday night at the Amway Center, the Orlando Solar Bears came away frustrated and angry as the Gwinnett Gladiators took home a 3-2 victory in front of an announced crowd of 5,269. Local product Eddie Levens scored his first professional goal in the contest but it was a controversial game-opening goal by the visiting Gladiators early in the first period that drew much of the attention.
The loss may have also been a costly one as forward Rob Mignardi left the game after tumbling heavily into the boards late in the first period and did not return. No information on Mignardi’s status was available immediately after the game.
“The guys did play through it (the controversy). They showed a lot of character. They showed a lot of resilience,” Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky said. “I’m really proud of our guys the way they came back and fought back from the adversity they had to face tonight.”
With Gwinnett (33-22-2-1) missing goalies Mike Lee and Louis Domingue, it looked like the perfect opportunity for Orlando to pick up just its second win of the year over the current South division leaders. It was also a chance for the Solar Bears to build on Wednesday night’s win over Evansville.
It took less than two minutes of playing time in the first period for the controversy to occur. Following an offensive zone draw, Gwinnett’s Justin Bowers played the puck toward the slot area. The puck got to Joey Haddad who was immediately met by a Solar Bears defender who knocked Haddad to the ice. Haddad then moved the puck to Evan Bloodoff who beat Orlando goalie Zoltan Hetenyi to the short side.
From the naked eye looking down on the ice, it appeared as if Haddad may have moved the puck to Bloodoff with his hand. After consulting with his linesmen, referee Frederic Leblanc ruled the play legal and signaled the goal good. Berehowsky protested the ruling and seemed to be vindicated by the video replay in the Amway Center but the call was allowed to stand, bringing a loud chorus of booing from the pro-Solar Bears crowd.
After the game, Berehowsky was still frustrated by the call.
“It’s frustrating for the 20 guys in the room who go out there and give their all,” he said. “When they make mistakes, there are consequences for them.”
Trailing by one heading into the second period, Orlando (24-27-2-3) picked up the pace
and it paid off before the stanza was five minutes old. Working on a power play, Derrick Burnett was able to slide the puck through the center of the slot away from traffic. As he did that, Ryan Blair moved into the open area. Blair collected the puck and from close range popped it up and over Gladiators netminder Jody O’Neill to tie the game.
The score stayed that way until the 16:34 mark when Levens, who lives in nearby Clermont, saw teammate Justin Levac with the puck along the boards. Levens busted down the slot and took a perfect feed from Levac, redirecting the biscuit home for his first tally as a pro.
“I’m not really a goal scorer so we were tied and I tried to make the most of what the situation had,” Levens said. “I got a lucky bounce. It was a great pass by one of my teammates (Levac) and I was luckily able to tip it in for the goal.”
Levens said that getting his first goal in front of the home fans made it that much more special.
“It’s a great feeling living here, playing here for the hometown. This is an awesome city. The weather is amazing,” he said. “Having a hockey team in the best arena I think in our country, you can’t ask for more. Everyone’s got to realize how great of an opportunity this is and just come to work every day. I’m not going to take this for granted.”
Riding a 14-0-0-1 record when leading after two periods, Orlando wanted to go in for the kill but it was a two minute period early in the third that would be its downfall. During a power play, Haddad was able to get in front of Hetenyi and redirect a shot by Doug Jones into the back of the net to knot the score. Shortly thereafter, Jones slid a pass back to the point where Andy Brandt was covering. With Yuri Bouharevich creating a screen in front, Brandt let go with an off-balance floater that Hetenyi never saw until it was past him.
From there, the Gladiators went into lockdown mode, allowing Orlando a mere six shots on net. It was quite a defensive performance considering the fact that the Solar Bears had three man-advantage opportunities in the stanza. O’Neill, who was acquired from Las Vegas on Wednesday, stopped all six of Orlando’s shots to post the victory.
Even in defeat, Berehowsky felt his team played well enough to win and hoped they would take that positive into Friday night’s 7 p.m. rematch.
“They have to keep their heads up They played well. There’s no two ways about it. It was a hard fought game and you know what – we came out on the short end,” Berehowsky said. “It’s very frustrating. Now we just have to stay composed and we’ve got to go back out and we’ve got to take it to them tomorrow.”
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