KALAMAZOO, MI – Two weeks ago, the Orlando Solar Bears were bouncing around in the bottom half of the ECHL’s Eastern conference race. With points at a premium and positions changing almost daily, every game had become important.
Today, the Solar Bears are sitting in second place thanks to a nine game winning streak. The last two games in the run came over the weekend with “gut check” victories against the Toledo Walleye and the Kalamazoo Wings on the road. Both contests were, in their own way, emblematic of what Orlando has done since February 4.
Everyone on the roster has accepted and understands head coach Vince Williams’ concept of team play and it is paying dividends. The entire roster is pitching in but there are a few players who are standing out, becoming the leaders of the pack.
Mickey Lang and Taylor Matson have been far and away the offensive stars. In the last two weeks, the pair have simply terrorized every goaltender who has faced them. Over the space of seven games, Lang and Matson have combined for 31 points. Defensively, goalie Cody Reichard has stepped in and become a one-man show. Dating back to the start of the streak, Reichard has won seven straight starts including backstopping the weekend sweep of Toledo and Kalamazoo.
Saturday night in Toledo, after spotting the Walleye an early lead, the Solar Bears evened the score late in the first period when Lang set up Scott Tanski for his 14th goal of the season. They fell behind again in the middle frame but these days that is not even close to being a problem.
Tyler Murovich evened the score 7:40 into the third period when he took a pass from Connor Goggin and fired a shot past Toledo goalie Mac Carruth. Four minutes later, Matson scored a short-handed goal when he rolled the puck up and over Carruth after taking a pass from Lang.
Walleye Aaron Clarke pulled the home team even with his second goal of the game with a little under five minutes remaining in regulation when he beat a couple of Solar Bear defenders and went top corner on Reichard. Then with 1:44 left before a potential overtime period, Matson chased down the loose puck behind the net following a Blake Kessel shot and tucked a wraparound just inside the right post for the eventual game winner.
Sunday afternoon’s contest was a battle of wills as a tired Solar Bears squad pulled into Kalamazoo to face a well-rested Wings team that was nipping at Orlando’s heels in the standings. Once again the home team got on the board first when during a power play, the puck bounced past Reichard off of Matt Caria’s skate. Despite the argument put up by the Orlando bench that Caria directed the puck in with a kicking motion, the goal stood.
The Solar Bears controlled the opening frame from there. They tied the score at the 13:01 mark when Matson fed a pass to Goggin who skated into the right circle and put a hard wrister behind Kalamazoo netminder Joel Martin. Just under four minutes later, Matson was in the right place in the right time to clean up the rebound of a Corey Fienhage shot to put Orlando ahead before the intermission.
Kalamazoo jumped right back into the contest a little past the midway point of the second when another power play yielded success. It came when David Pecan curled out of the left corner and found Yannick Veilleux in the slot with a perfect pass. Veilleux had just enough room to get off a shot that found the back of the net. 15 seconds later, former Solar Bear Chris Lawrence burned his former team with a turnaround shot from the high slot that beat Reichard to the top corner.
Trailing once again, Orlando looked for a response and got it in the closing minute of the frame. The play started with Reichard beating Lawrence to a loose puck before the two collided. As many in the stands were watching the aftermath of the hit, Matson and Cepis played give-and-go at the other end with Cepis putting the puck in the net on a wraparound.
Following a scoreless third period, the teams lined up for sudden death overtime. 1:06 into the five minute period, Matson stole the puck in the corner and eventually found Lang who laced a shot just under the crossbar and in to end the game. The goal was Lang’s league-leading 31st of the season.
Not to be lost in the excitement of the win, Reichard made 26 saves against Kalamazoo to post the victory. Over the three games during the weekend, he stopped 91 of the 100 shots he faced in the three games. With his seventh consecutive win, he added on to the ECHL franchise record that he established the night before.
Orlando will go for its tenth consecutive win Tuesday night when it visits the conference leading South Carolina Stingrays in a game rescheduled from late January because of weather issues. Only five points separate the teams and the Solar Bears are confident that with nine straight wins – including two against the Stingrays – in their back pocket, this trip to North Charleston will not have the same outcome as their first two visits there.
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