Royals edge Solar Bears in classic battle

Orlando goalie Max Clermont (right) defends the net against Reading's Josh Britain Saturday night (Photo courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears)

Orlando goalie Max Clermont (right) defends the net against Reading’s Josh Britain Saturday night (Photo courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears)

ORLANDO, FLA – Saturday night at the Amway Center, only one team had anything to play for. Still, the Orlando Solar Bears and the Reading Royals put on a show fit for a playoff series, one that could eventually happen.

It took more than 65 minutes of play and eight shots in a shootout before the visiting Royals came away with an exciting 1-0 victory over the Solar Bears in front of a fan appreciation night crowd of 7,194. By virtue of picking up a point by giving the fans free hockey, Orlando now needs to just do the same on Sunday afternoon to secure home ice for the first round of the ECHL Kelly Cup playoffs that begin later this week.

“It was a good hockey game. I thought (in) the first period we were getting into a little bit of a run and gun game which wasn’t what we wanted to go into. We had our chances to score, we hit a post here and there. Both goalies played well,” Orlando head coach Vince Williams said. “It was as close as you’re going to get to a playoff game.”

Essentially the final pieces of the Eastern conference now come down to exactly two games after six months of play. Orlando (42-24-2-3, 89 points) sits in fourth place in the standings, one point ahead of the Cincinnati Cyclones. The Solar Bears host division rival Greenville Sunday afternoon at the same time that the Cyclones are playing in Toledo. If Cincinnati wins and Orlando loses in regulation, the two teams will play the first two games of their best-of-seven quarterfinal series in the Queen City. Should the Solar Bears win or pick up that one slim point for an overtime or shootout loss, games one and two will be in the City Beautiful.

Saturday’s game in Orlando meant little for Reading (46-22-2-2, 96 points) as the Royals had already sewn up the top spot in the conference and home ice throughout the Eastern side of the playoffs. It did have significance however for forward Ryan Cruthers who was returning to the place where he played a season ago. The fact that the contest was being seen in homes across Central Florida on broadcast television and “professional fan” Cameron Hughes was in town to entertain the fans just added to the atmosphere.

What happened after the opening faceoff came as both a pleasant surprise and a nerve-racking experience. Orlando goalie Max Clermont and Reading netminder Brandon Anderson immediately locked into a battle of wills that had players, coaches and fans alike on pins and needles throughout. For the casual fan and those maybe seeing a game for the first time, what the contest lacked in scoring was more than made up for in the drama department.

“As a group it was a great game from everybody. We played the right way for sixty minutes, or sixty-five,” Clermont, who finished the playing portion of the game with 31 saves, said. “That’s what we’re going to need from now on to move on and be successful.”

The teams certainly had chances as they combined for seven power play opportunities. Reading’s Sean Wiles rang a shot off the crossbar behind Clermont in the first period. Anderson stoned Orlando’s Tyler Murovich on a break-in early in the second. Each team had moments of pressure on offense and survival instinct on defense. There were shots that just missed the net and pucks that took bounces to avoid stick blades. By the end of overtime, a combined 68 shots had been recorded but none found the back of the net.

In the shootout, Cruthers beat Clermont with a backhander to the top corner on Reading’s first attempt. After Anderson denied Orlando’s Jake Cepis in round two, Josh Brittain went low to the stick side for the Royals second score. After a scoreless round three, Solar Bears forward Wade MacLeod kept his team alive by slipping the puck between Anderson’s legs in round four. Seconds later, T.J. Syner ended the game by doing the same to Clermont.

Even in defeat, the Solar Bears were happy with the team effort in the game. Captain Eric Baier added that the focus in the locker room had quickly turned to repeating the effort on Sunday with home ice on the line.

“I think it was a great response (to Orlando’s loss in Reading) from us. It was just a solid game all around,” Baier said. “All we’re focused on right now is getting that home ice. I think it is something that we’re all looking forward to and obviously we can’t get a better environment than playing here for us.”

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