Solar Bears have plenty of work ahead

MAITLAND, FLA – Twenty-two games might sound like a nice amount but it is only a bit more than a quarter of the ECHL schedule. It is however big enough to see some trends and develop plans to accentuate the good and fix the bad.

Orlando head coach Drake Berehowsky (PHN photo by Garry Shorter)

Orlando head coach Drake Berehowsky (PHN photo by Garry Shorter)

For Orlando Solar Bears head coach Drake Berehowsky, assessing his team’s play is a glass half-empty, half-full proposition. There have been flashes of brilliance but there also have been moments of frustration, especially on the road. Coming off a 1-4 road trip, the Solar Bears (9-10-2-1) return to the friendly confines of the Amway Center Friday night when the Ft. Wayne Komets visit for the first game of a three-game weekend series before Orlando plays another five games away from home before Christmas.
“We had a great start to the season. Everybody was firing on all cylinders (but) obviously right now we’ve hit a bit of a speed bump,” Berehowsky said. “The guys are working hard. They’re trying to improve every day and that’s what we set out to do. We want to have a slow progression and part of growing is going through some speed bumps and some adversity. It’s going to be (about) how we respond and what we learn from this.”
When asked to evaluate his team, Berehowsky said that there were several players who he considered to be “surprises” based on how they had stepped up. Forwards C.J. Severyn (4-2-6), Ryan Ginand (3-11-14) and Olivier Fortier (8-9-17)were foremost on the coach’s mind as players who have made their presence felt.
“The play of Severyn, the way he’s come on (during) the last part of the season has been phenomenal. I’m glad to see Ginand getting a chance to
Orlando forward C.J. Severyn (Photo courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears)

Orlando forward C.J. Severyn (Photo courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears)

go up to the AHL. I think that’s fantastic for him and I’d like to see more guys getting the opportunity. Forts was a great surprise. He’s been able to find the back of the net quite a bit this year so I’m happy about those guys,” Berehowsky said.
Add those surprises to Nick Petersen (9-12-21), who was named the Player of the Month for October, Mat Sisca (5-12-17)and captain Ryan Cruthers (6-6-12) and Orlando’s offense has the potential to stand up with any ECHL team.
The defense has been solid despite a rash of injuries that have forced Orlando to use different players and change pairings. Kyle Medvec, despite missing three weeks due to injury, has been a lynchpin on the blue line as have Michael Wilson and assistant captain Derick Martin. Overall, Berehowsky was quite pleased with the d-men.
“The d is solid. It was tough when we had our injuries for a little bit there but the team battled through it,” Berehowsky said. “Everybody’s growing out there. Meddy (Medvec) is growing as a player. He’s getting more confidence out there and he’s moving the puck well. Lampsy (Bryce Lampman) will come into his own soon. It was great to see (Ryan) Blair playing like he can. Willie (Wilson) has been a rock for us back there as well as Martin. Baldy (Corbin Baldwin) has had the opportunity to get called up so we’re happy to see that and hopefully (Sean) Lorenz will get an opportunity.”
Goaltending has probably been the best individual spot on then ice for the Solar Bears. John Curry (8-5-2, 2.68 goals against average) has put up solid numbers while seeing the bulk of the action. Mike Brodeur, Hannu Toivonen and Darcy Kuemper have also contributed outings that give Orlando a formidable net minding combo no matter what pair is dressed.
“Our goaltending has been stellar,” Berehowsky said.
Consistency is usually a struggle for expansion teams as they build a “culture” as Berehowsky describes it and the Solar Bears are no exception. They have had a five-game win streak and back-to-back wins against Kalamazoo. There have also been losing streaks of two (opening weekend), three and four games along the way. Berehowsky said that one of the biggest things a young team like his has to learn about is playing at a consistently high level.
“They’re such a young group and I don’t think they realize how important consistency is. We bring in a player like (NHL veteran B.J.) Crombeen and you see the consistency in his play. He got pucks in, he got pucks out. He did the little things, the attention to detail, that we’re trying to stress to the (other) players. It‘s hard when a player hasn‘t been stressed those details before. It‘s a growing period,” he said. “I said at the start of the year that we just want to keep progressing and that’s what we’re doing. It’s not going to be an overnight process to set this culture up. It’s going to take some time. It takes a lot of effort by myself, by Matt (assistant coach McIlvane), by our training staff, by the ownership group. Everyone has to have some patience as well with these guys and eventually it’ll be the organization we all hoped it to be.”
Solar Bears forward Olivier Fortier (Photo Courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears).

Solar Bears forward Olivier Fortier (Photo Courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears).

The lack of consistency can be clearly seen in both the home and away records that the Solar Bears are carrying. At the Amway Center, they are a solid 5-3-1-1 while they are only 4-7-1-0 when away from Central Florida. Even the power play, which was hot at the start, is like night and day with a 24.4 percent success rate at home but just 10.2  percent success on the road. Berehowsky said that in his estimation there is no excuse for the team’s sub-.500 road record.
“We should be able to win on the road just as well as we win at home. Our travel is great. We stay in nice places. We have no problems with our meals or anything like that,” he said. “That would be an excuse if I said that was the case. We’ve got to get better. We have to realize that we have to get better. We’ve gone through this little bad stretch and we’re just on the verge of getting out of it I believe.”
Taking it a step further, Orlando has been outscored in both the first (17 goals for to 25 against) and third (17-22) periods but somehow manages to win the middle stanza (20-15). Looking at shots on net by period, the numbers are reversed as the Solar Bears dominate the first (243-225) and third (246-201) but hit a bump in the second (215-227).
“When we come out and we score first, we seem like we’re in better shape. We’re a pretty fragile group right now and we have to learn what resilience really means,” Berehowsky said. “That’s one of our pillars here is resilience. The guys showed that at the start (of the season) but when you’re dealing with a fragile group, you have to dig deep, your leaders have to lead and you have to dig your way out and show that resilience.”
Many would look at the fluidity of the roster as a possible reason for a
Solar Bears defenseman Corbin Baldwin (Phot courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears)

Solar Bears defenseman Corbin Baldwin (Phot courtesy of Orlando Solar Bears)

lack of consistency. In 22 games, Orlando has had 34 different players dressed, including five goalies. Some of those problems were caused by injuries (most notably Medvec and Brodeur) while others were because of call-ups to the AHL’s Houston Aeros (Ginand, Petersen and Baldwin).
Berehowsky said that he is quite proud of the call-ups, noting that it is his job to prepare the players for the opportunity.
“I don’t look at it as a negative, I look at it as a positive. Every time I talk to Jim Mill (Houston general manager), he is always sympathetic to our needs. Our job is to feed them and it’s great when players get the opportunity,” he said. “I’ve live the dream. I played in the NHL and that’s the pinnacle of this whole process. These guys want to get there and for them to be rewarded for their hard work down here is fantastic and the guys who haven’t been called up or haven’t had a taste of it yet are still working hard every day to get the opportunity.”
Although it seems like an abnormally high number of roster changes, Berehowsky said that it isn’t anything new to him.
“It’s part of the game. We accept that as coaches. We know that’s going to happen. Our team can’t use that as an excuse. I will not use that as an excuse. I think excuses are for losers,” he said. “We’ve just got to get back on this horse and figure out how to get back winning again.”
The fragility that Berehowsky talks about has manifested itself in a dip in scoring. After a fast start that included an eight-goal outburst in the third game of the season, the offense has tapered off considerably. The scoring struggles were never greater than on the 1-4 road trip. The Solar Bears were shut out in three games and scored a total of three goals. Despite the four losses, Berehowsky said for the most part he was happy with the team’s effort.
“In that five game stretch, I don’t think we played all that bad. A couple of games were one-goal games and we had our opportunities but like I said, I think we’re a bit snake bit right now. The boys have to get their confidence back and they have to realize they are great offensive players and when they do, things will start falling,” he said. “Other than a few periods where we had major breakdowns and major issues, I’m pretty proud of the guys’ effort. I’ve always maintained that if they’re working hard and they’re trying their best, I’m OK with it. We can fix the mistakes but if they’re not giving me 100 percent, which was the case a couple of times, that’s when I’m disappointed and I get a little upset about that.”
As the goals have seemingly dried up, the players have started to get a bit frustrated which just adds more pressure. This frustration has put Berehowsky into the position of being a psychologist by getting the players to believe that they can will themselves into busting the scoring slump.
“I think definitely they’re gripping the sticks too tight. They’re frustrated and they’ve got to realize that as long as the opportunities are still coming, they have to realize that it (slump) will go away eventually,” Berehowsky said. “One of the biggest parts of being a pro is the mental aspect and it’s something that these guys have to learn. They have to realize that it’s not all about your skill on the ice – a lot of it is a mental battle. They have to be understanding and conscious of their body language, the way they act, the way they think about the game, the way they go over the mistakes they have. The brain is a funny thing – it’s a very powerful thing – and they have to realize that they can come out of this. They have to learn as young men that they can come out of this by trying to trick the brain and fooling themselves into thinking things are going in and then eventually things will fall into place.”
For Berehowsky, the biggest positive from a team perspective has been the penalty killing units. After a slow start, the PK enters this weekend tied for ninth in the ECHL with an overall success rate of 84.2 percent. At home, they succeed 84.4 percent of the time while on the road, the Solar Bears are sixth in the league with a 83.9 percent success rate.
“It’s a funny thing with the PK. Sometimes it goes in ebbs and flows. With our PK, I think we struggled at the start but I think they understand the structure now,” Berehowsky said. “I’ve learned a lot about penalty killing over the years from some pretty good people. I think the guys are really buying into it and that helps out. It’s about hard work and I’ve got some hard-working guys on there that are willing to do what it takes to get the job done.”
So what would Berehowsky like to accomplish between now and game 36, the halfway point of the season? Picking up wins are important but right now getting the team moving in the right direction is most important.
“I want to get this thing turned around. I want these guys playing the type of style that I want that’s in the structure that we set up that was successful at the start of the year and I know can continue to be successful,” he said. “We just have to have a total effort for sixty minutes and we can’t keep shooting ourselves in the foot. Right now it seems every game we shoot ourselves in the foot with one bad call, one bad play. When you’re a fragile team, you can’t afford to have those.”
Contact the author at don.money@prohockeynews.com

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