DULUTH, Ga. – Saturday night, the Orlando Solar Bears sat helplessly as the Toledo Walleye ended the expansion team’s hopes of qualifying for the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs. It also meant that Sunday’s game against the Gwinnett Gladiators was of no consequence to them, meaning that the Solar Bears were playing for pride and invitations to training camp next October.
Led by the strong play of rookie Nick McParland and a number of new Solar Bears, Orlando gave Gwinnett all it could handle before falling 3-2 in front of 5,853 fans at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. McParland scored both of the Solar Bears goals, his first two as a professional, in his very first outing. It brought the Orlando list of players who have scored their first professional career goals this year to seven.
“It is always nice to see players making the most of their first professional opportunity and I have been pleased with what I have seen out of these players so far,” Orlando Head Coach Drake Berehowsky said in a team issued post-game release. “We are beginning to take a look at some players who can make an impact on our roster next season.”
Playing on a line with Michael Neal and fellow rookie Brett Hartung, McParland was a going concern throughout the contest. The line combined to tie the game not once but twice after the Gladiators had taken the lead. Gwinnett’s Andy Brandt had the final say when his second goal of the contest eight minutes into the third period was the game winner.
The game started off as a goaltending showcase as Solar Bears netminder Patrick Killeen faced off against Gwinnett’s Mark Visentin, who had been assigned to the Gladiators by the Phoenix Coyotes from AHL Portland last Thursday. The pair matched save for save over the first sixteen minutes of the first period. In that time, each team did come close with Orlando’s Alain Goulet and Gwinnett’s Brandt catching iron on separate opportunities.
The Gladiators (40-25-2-1) got the first break of the game late in the stanza. Working on a power play, the Solar Bears were trying to clear the puck when Yuri Bouharevich got his stick on the puck. It sent the disc squirting out in front of the Orlando net where Brandt got it and rifled it into the top left cornet past Killeen.
29 seconds later, the Solar Bears (26-33-3-3) answered when McParland and Hartung broke out on a two-on-one break. Driving down the left wing, the former Lake Superior State star drilled a shot past Visentin to tie the score. Things stayed that way into the first intermission.
The second period was scoreless, thanks in great part to Killeen. He was forced to make a couple of big stops on odd man breaks. The first was a save on Doug Jones during a two-on-one break. Minutes later, former Solar Bear Ryan Ginand found himself on a clean breakaway but Killeen was there to turn away the attempt.
The defensive struggle that developed over the first forty minutes broke up during a five minute stretch early in the third. It started when Jones made a slick move off the half boards into the slot where he let loose with a shot that got past Killeen at the 3:25 mark. Not to be outdone, McParland notched his second of the game when he redirected a perfect feed from Hartung into the back of the net
Two minutes later, Gwinnett struck for the game winner. It came when Bouharevich launched a shot toward the Orlando net where it was met by some traffic. The puck dropped to the ice where Brandt fished it out of the sea of skates and found just enough room to slide it home.
Not wanting to fall in a season-high seventh straight game, the Solar Bears put on a charge over the closing minutes. While the pressure was intense, it was not enough to beat Visentin, who was rock solid in the clutch. Berehowsky pulled Killeen with 45 seconds left but even with the extra attacker, the Solar Bears failed to score. Hartung’s final attempt fell into Visentin’s glove as the buzzer sounded to end the contest.
Orlando will get a couple of days off before beginning its final stretch of home games on Wednesday when they host the Greenville Road Warriors.
Follow us on Twitter @prohockeynews