ORLANDO, FLA – The last time the hockey fans of Orlando saw their Solar Bears on the ice, the team was finishing out its inaugural season. For forty minutes, it looked like the Bears would reward the people in the stands with a win but on this night it was not to be.
Matthew Pistilli scored two goals during a four goal final period as the Florida Everblades scored a 4-2 victory over the Solar Bears in front of 8,849 at the Amway Center. The loss kept Orlando without a win on the opening weekend of the 2013-2014 ECHL season after a loss to the same Everblades Friday night in Estero.
The third period outburst by the visitors spoiled the home debuts of more than half of the Orlando team. The list included talented rookies Zach Yuen and Christopher Gibson who were assigned to the Solar Bears by the Toronto Maple Leafs and defenseman Cody Wild who scored his first goal in an Orlando uniform.
“Honestly right now we’ve got a lot to work on. I hate to say it but we’ve got to work on our compete level,” Wild, who along with Ian Slater is an assistant captain for home games, said. “It’s not there. We’re getting outworked. They took it to us both nights. We had two good periods but it’s a sixty minute game and we didn’t show up for all sixty.”
Even with an impressive introduction ceremony behind them, the Solar Bears couldn’t quite get a skate hold in the early minutes, relying on Gibson in the net to hold off the Everblades. The Finnish netminder did his part, playing a solid positional game that kept Florida off the board.
Orlando (0-2-0-0) got on the board first just past the eight minute mark of the opening period. The play started when Yuen kept the puck in at the point and whipped it toward the front of the net. Zach Harrison made a beeline to the top of the crease and deflected Yuen’s drive past Everblades goalie (and Tampa prospect) Kristers Gudlevskis. For Yuen, it was his first point as a professional.
Buoyed by the Harrison tally, the Solar Bears began to find some additional offense, putting six shots on Gudlevskis before the end of the period. Even the defense appeared to be filling in some of the cracks as it held Florida to just two shots in the final eight minutes of the stanza.
“Our defensive zone coverage was a lot better tonight and surprisingly so. It’s a huge adjustment for a lot of guys,” Orlando head coach Vince Williams said. “We’ve got some young guys in the lineup on the back end too. It’s a big change and they’ve got to start to understand the pro game a little bit more. It was substantially better than yesterday (Friday).”
The Solar Bears doubled their lead less than two minutes into the second period when Wild saw an opportunity and took it. The play began when Orlando brought the puck into the Florida defensive end. Mike Ullrich got a hold of it and skated down below the goal line. As he did, Wild jumped into the play and sprinted for the net. Ullrich fed the puck to the front of the net where it hit Wild and caromed home.
“We weren’t getting many shots on (net) tonight so I just wanted to crash the net and I guess it went off my butt or something,” Wild said. “We needed some ugly goals to get us going.”
Shots were at a premium for both teams in the middle period. The Everblades were limited
to five while the Solar Bears had only three. Gibson continued to be solid, raising hopes that he was heading toward his first professional win and shutout.
“I think he’s been good. He’s a young pro and we put a lot on him,” Williams said of Gibson. “He’s giving us a chance to win every night.”
Orlando’s luck – and a good portion of its defensive play – was left in the locker room when the teams came out for the final twenty minutes. Florida turned up the heat and thought they had a score two minutes in but the play was called offside well after the puck found the back of the net.
Thirty seconds later, Mike Merrifield tipped home a shot by Joe Stejskal to officially cut the lead to 2-1. Then Pistilli capitalized on a Solar Bears turnover at center ice to create a breakaway for himself. He beat Gibson to the top corner of the net to even the score.
Gibson (25 saves) collected himself, coming up with a huge save on Pistilli a little past the midpoint of the period. Seconds later, Gudlevskis (12 saves) robbed Harrison on a partial break-in to keep the game tied.
The key play of the game came with just under two minutes left in regulation. Off a faceoff in the Orlando defensive end, Brandon MacLean scooped up the loose puck as it headed for the corner. He then began to move toward the front of the net and when Gibson dipped his shoulder away from the post, MacLean lifted the puck to the vacated top corner.
When asked about the play, Gibson admitted that he make the mistake of not waiting long enough to force MacLean’s hand.
“I moved too early and left the short side open. I’ll take that goal on myself, on my shoulders,” he said.
The Solar Bears pulled Gibson in an attempt to get the game-tying goal but with 53 seconds left on the clock, Pistilli buried the puck into the back of the net from center ice to seal the victory.
Williams said that he will spend the day off on Sunday looking at video from Saturday’s game and take up his assessment with the team on Monday. He admitted that there will be plenty to discuss, not the least of which will be generating more offensive chances.
“We certainly have to start looking at why we’re not creating as much offense, (why) we’re not getting as many shots,” he said. “We’re preaching to our guys to be accountable defensively but it doesn’t mean we want to go into a complete shell and just absorb all night long. We want to be accountable defensively so that we’re able to transition and go the other way and create offense. Six shots in two periods is not enough.”
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