DULUTH, GA – Since day one of the 2013-2014 ECHL season, Orlando Solar Bears head coach Vince Williams has been preaching about and waiting for his team to play a “60 minute game”. It may have taken 33 games but following Friday night’s meeting with the Gwinnett Gladiators, he just may have found what he was looking for.
Forward Jacob Cepis and defenseman Blake Kessel each had multiple point nights and eight players finished with a plus-2 or better rating as the Solar Bears dominated the Gladiators 5-1 at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. The win was Orlando’s third in a row and third in its last four games on the road.
Just as impressive as the fact that five different players lit the goal light was the effort by the Solar Bears on defense. They allowed the Gladiators only 18 shots on goalie Christopher Gibson, the lowest number of shots in a single game the team had given up since joining the ECHL.
From the outset, it was apparent that Orlando (19-12-1-1) was ready for its first game away from the Amway Center in almost a month. Offensive pressure was the name of the game and when Mickey Lang rang the goal post behind Gwinnett goalie Paul Karpowich a minute and a half into the first period, the visitors knew they were on the right track.
The Gladiators (13-20-0-2) pushed back some and had the first big opportunity to dent the scoreboard with a power play. The Solar Bears turned the penalty kill into an offensive weapon when Kessel and Andrew Johnston teamed up for a short-handed tally. Kessel made an aerial pass that Johnston knocked out of mid-air and turned into a breakaway. Johnston made a couple of moves and beat Karpowich to put Orlando in front.
The lead doubled five minutes later when Cepis made a perfect cross ice pass to Scott Tanski who ripped a shot inside the post. Gwinnett wasn’t ready to give in quite yet, getting an unassisted goal from one time Solar Bear Marshall Everson a minute after Tanski’s goal to cut the lead back to one.
The Solar Bears took little time to respond to the Everson goal. Defenseman Bryce Aneloski attempted to send the puck around the glass in the Gwinnett defensive zone. The puck took a weird bounce toward the front of the net where Kory Nagy got a hold of it and put it into the back of the net to restore the two goal lead.
Orlando’s offense continued its dominance in the middle frame. With a delayed penalty coming to the Gladiators, Cepis fed the puck back to the point where captain Eric Baier stepped into a one-time shot that beat Karpowich into the bottom right corner of the net. It was the final shot that Karpowich saw as he was replaced by Brad Phillips before the next faceoff.
In stark contrast to Karpowich’s fortunes was Gibson’s play between the pipes for the Solar Bears. Playing with confidence, Gibson settled in after the Everson goal and stopped everything that came his way. The one shot he couldn’t get to was a drive by Dirk Southern that clanged off the post and bounded harmlessly away.
With Gibson in complete control, all that was left was to establish the final score. Orlando wasn’t quite done with filling the scoreboard up. Early in the third period, the Solar Bears got their first power play opportunity of the night and they made the Gladiators pay. Cepis fed the puck to Kessel who nailed a shot that caught the post flush. Mike Ullrich, who was named the ECHL Player of the Week for last week, was standing in the right place to collect the rebound and jam it home.
The final ten minutes of the game were a matter of survival as 24 of the game’s 30 penalty minutes were handed out in that time. Included in that was a fight between Lang and Everson as well as a matchup between Paul Baier and former Solar Bear Brett Lyon that nearly ended in fisticuffs.
Any leftover animosity between the two teams will have to wait for Saturday night when the squads faceoff again at the Arena at Gwinnett Center. Puck drop is set for 7:05 pm.
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