ORLANDO, FLA – Having a brother who just happens to play on a team which has “the face of the NHL” on it is certainly a great conversation piece off the ice. Being the star of the family on the ice, even if for only one night, is priceless.
Thursday night at the Amway Center, Michael Neal put on a show that even his older sibling James Neal in Pittsburgh would have been proud of, scoring two goals and adding three assists to lead the Orlando Solar Bears to a resounding 7-2 victory over the Wheeling Nailers. Neal’s five points surpassed his entire 13 game output since joining the Solar Bears and highlighted a night where he and linemates Dale Mahovsky and Scott Tanski accounted for four goals and nine total points.
The two teams will meet again on Saturday night and in a Monday afternoon matinee at the Amway.
Playing in front of 5,711 at home for the first time since December 28th, Orlando (16-20-2-2) needed to wash away the memories of a bad road trip and fast. Having scored the first goal in just 13 of their previous 39 games, the Solar Bears knew that bucking the trend held the key and buck they did.
Five and a half minutes into the opening period, Mike Liambas was in the right place at the right time to knock down a Nailers attempted clearing pass at the blue line. He drove for the net and dished it to Neal whose shot was stopped by Wheeling goalie Peter Delmas. As the rebound hopped loose, Liambas was there to put the puck into the net.
Just over two minutes later, Neal and Liambas worked a perfect give-and-go with Neal ripping a wrist shot home to double the lead. Then Dan Gendur took a stroll through what looked like the entire Nailers team and lighting the goal light. Gendur’s 14th of the season (10th with the Solar Bears) completed a three goals in three minutes span to break it open.
Despite having a short bench, Wheeling (18-14-2-4) parlayed Orlando’s penchant for taking penalties into a mini comeback. Zach Hansen netted a power play goal just past the midway point of the first period and then added another man advantage tally against Solar Bears netminder John Curry to close the gap to 3-2 before the first intermission.
Despite almost giving up the three-goal lead, Orlando head coach Drake Berehowsky was confident that if his team could regain its playing structure, it could stop Wheeling’s momentum quickly.
“It’s a unique situation when you get up three quick like that. They called a timeout. They regrouped. They came back with a couple of power play goals (but) we did settle in after that,” he said. “We realized that we have to play within our structure. When we play within our structure, we’re a tough team to play against and we give ourselves a chance to win every night.”
The Solar Bears took a little bit longer to do their damage in the second period but again it was a cluster of goals that allowed them to seize control. It started with what looked like an innocent play down the near boards. Ryan Blair carried the puck into the Nailers defensive end and fired a shot from along the boards. Somehow it eluded Delmas on the short side and settled into the back of the net for Blair‘s first tally in and Orlando jersey.
Just under five minutes later, Orlando was pressing again when a shot from the point by Blair was stopped by Delmas (15 saves on 26 shots). In the traffic out front, Neal somehow was able to dig the puck out and fire it home to up the lead to 5-2. Then at the 12:03 mark, Mahovsky dumped the puck in on Delmas who gave up a juicy rebound. Mahovsky out-skated the Wheeling defenders and ended Delmas’ night with his sixth goal of the year and first since coming over with Gendur in the Kevin Baker deal with Evansville.
Even with the big lead, Curry (36 saves on 38 shots) had to be sharp as the Nailers piled up shots. After facing 14 in the first, Curry had to look at 18 more in the second but he handled they perfectly, allowing Orlando to take a commanding 6-2 lead into the final twenty minutes.
“I think we started off with a bang and we’re sticking (to) our system, taking the body and chipping pucks. We were all on the same page,” Liambas said.
Orlando’s defense played much better in the third. Allowing just six Wheeling shots to reach Curry, who picked up his 14th win of the season. Tanski finished off the scoring midway through the stanza when he intercepted an errant pass by Nailers goalie Scott Darling (who had taken over for Delmas after Mahovsky’s score), skated all the way around the net and tucked the puck in past a defenseman who was trying to cover for Darling.
When asked about whether he would call big brother James, who is preparing for the start of the NHL season this weekend, and brag about his big night, Michael Neal said that no matter what he does, his sibling can always trump him.
“I’d love to but it just comes down to him saying he’s got 40 goals in the NHL and I just laugh about that and kind of shut my mouth,” he said. “We always talk and we’re always joking around. He’s always happy for me when I have a good night and obviously the team too.”
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