Solar Bears fight roster obstacles, continuity issues

MAITLAND, FLA – When Drake Berehowsky took the job as the head coach of the ECHL expansion Orlando Solar Bears, he knew that the position would bring a set of challenges he had never experienced before.
As the Solar Bears return home to start a three-game homestand against the Wheeling Nailers, Berehowsky’s task has become increasingly difficult as the season turns past the midway point. With the playoffs a little over two months away, Orlando sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference after being in eighth place 17 games ago.
22 games into its inaugural season, Orlando was a very respectable 9-10-2-1 in the always tough eastern side of the ECHL. In the 17 games since, the Solar Bears have found wins elusive as they have won just six times. Berehowsky’s team has struggled to find consistency with the biggest issue being a revolving roster because of call-ups and injuries.
Seven players have been poached by AHL teams including the Solar Bears’ affiliate in Houston with two more heading to other teams. It is both a source of pride and consternation for the organization.
“I think we’ve had a lot of guys getting the opportunity to go up to the AHL. We’ve had a lot of transactions that have happened and we’re happy for those guys as an organization. That’s what we want to do – our job is to feed the AHL – and I think we’re doing a good job,” Berehowsky said. “I want them to succeed. I want them to live the dream and a lot of them are getting the opportunity.”
The players Berehowsky was referring to are Nick Petersen, Rob Mignardi, Kyle Medvec, Josh Caron, Michael Wilson, Olivier Fortier and Bryce Lampman. Petersen has put up three goals (including a recent game-winner) and six points in twelve games with Houston. Mignardi and Medvec both have two points in double-digit contests with the Aeros while Caron has filled the role asked of him. Fortier has a pair of points in 13 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs, Wilson has a point in four contests with the Worcester Sharks and Lampman has played three games for the Portland Pirates.
The other part of the equation is injuries. With Sean Lorenz, Ryan Ginand, Chris Lawrence, Corbin Baldwin, Mike Brodeur and now Jesse Dudas (who was signed last week) out of action, Berehowsky has been scrambling to fill in the holes. Add in the chaos created by the end of the NHL lockout and at one point, the Solar Bears roster had six players who either came from single-A hockey rosters or weren’t playing when Orlando came calling.
“We just have to go back to the drawing board and find some more guys. We’re looking into everything right now, looking into all the players,” he said. “We’re reaching out to people we know and that’s all we can do right now. Hopefully we’ll get some of our injured guys back which will be a key for us.”
Ryan Cruthers, Derick Martin, Scott Tanski and Mat Sisca are the only four players who have participated in all 39 Solar Bears games. With the additions of tough guy Mike Sgroi, defenseman Nick Kuqali from the SPHL and blue liner Alain Goulet from Alaska to complete an early season trade, Orlando will have had 49 different players on its bench at one time or another.
The worst hit the Solar Bears have taken has been on defense. When Wilson and Lampman got the call, it left Orlando with just four healthy, available blue liners. Berehowsky said that the systems the Solar Bears use were designed with having moving parts in mind.
“We put in a system at the end of September for these guys to play in. No matter who we lose or who comes in, we should be able to be competitive with any team and win our fair share of games,” he said. “It’s not a complicated system so we hope that everybody can play (within it).”
Statistically, Orlando has increased its goals for per game average slightly (2.64 to 2.67) but the team’s goals against per game has also seen an increase from just under three goals per game to a little over (2.95 to 3.36). The number of shots allowed per game has gone up too by a little over two shots per game (30.23 to 32.62).
The most glaring numbers are in the team’s record at home and on the road. At the Amway Center, the Solar Bears are 8-4-2-1. When Orlando leaves the friendly confines of Central Florida, they are just 7-16-1-0 (3-9-0-0 since the 22-game mark). Berehowsky said that being undisciplined had been a roadblock away from home.
“To be a good team, you have to be successful on the road. You look at our road record and a couple of those road trips, we get down and then we again shoot ourselves in the foot with some of the things we do or a lack of discipline,” Berehowsky said. “I think for the most part we work hard on the road. We just haven’t had a bounce here or a bounce there which makes it hard on the guys. The road is always hard to play on and when you get down like that, we’ve got to figure out a way to be able to bounce back and be able to be resilient.”
It is also well worth noting that in 39 games, Orlando has scored the first goal of the game on only 13 occasions. In those contests, the Solar Bears have posted a 10-3-0-0 record so it appears that confidence does come from getting on the board first. While acknowledging that scoring first is important, Berehowsky said that putting too much pressure on the players to get that opening tally could backfire.
“If you tell them that we need to get it and you put that kind of pressure on them and it doesn’t happen, they think that the game is over so you don’t want to put too much emphasis on that,” he said. “We always want to get the first goal – there’s no question about it. Like I said, hopefully we’ll start getting some bounces and things will go our way.”
Following the short homestand, the Solar Bears will play three more road games before coming home on January 30th to begin a stretch that will see them at home for all but one game until March 2nd. Berehowsky said that the focus of the team remains as it always has been be it at home or on the road – daily improvement.
“We’re just trying to get better every game, whether we’re on the road or at home. We just want to be the best team that we can possibly be. We work every day at our systems and doing the little things right, paying attention to detail,” he said. “You can see the progression in our team and I know maybe our record doesn’t state it but we are getting better. We just have to be more consistent at it and if we can be consistent at it then we can give ourselves a chance to win every game.”
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