ELMIRA, NY – As someone who has been around the ECHL wars for a while, Orlando Solar Bears head coach Vince Williams will be the first to tell anyone that trying to balance a roster late in the season can be difficult. He would probably also describe the condition of said roster as volatile at best. After the events of Friday, there would be absolutely no reason to doubt any of it.
The Elmira Jackals rode a huge four goal first period and rookie goalie Chris Driedger stopped 30 of 31 shots as the Jackals blasted the Orlando Solar Bears at the First Arena in Elmira. It was Orlando’s second straight loss on its final road trip of the regular season and kept the Solar Bears from gaining any cushion in the race for home ice in the first round of the Eastern conference playoffs.
Coach Williams’ wild ride began on Thursday when goalie Cody Reichard was called up by Orlando’s AHL affiliate in Iowa. The move was necessitated when the Minnesota Wild, one of the Solar Bears NHL affiliates, saw goalie Darcy Kuemper go down with an upper body injury and had to bring John Curry up from Iowa.
There was no problem with Reichard leaving because the Toronto Marlies, Orlando’s other AHL family member, had sent netminder Christopher Gibson down on Thursday to get some playing time. Unfortunately the Toronto Maple Leafs lost goalie Jonathan Bernier to a sprained MCL, forcing a callup from the Marlies and an immediate recall of Gibson.
The moves from above left Williams with goalie Max Clermont as his starting goalie and the need to get an emergency backup for Friday’s game. The Solar Bears ended up signing Eli Cochran to sit on the bench and be available in the event of an injury.
Coming off Wednesday’s game in which Clermont and the Orlando defense had given up six unanswered goals – including five in the third period – to conference leading Reading, Williams was hoping for a better effort coming out of the gates. What he ended up getting was a rerun of the final twenty-two minutes of his team’s previous contest except that this time it was against a squad that was playing out the string.
Elmira (23-37-3-5, 54 points) was getting its first look at Driedger, a 2012 Ottawa Senators third round draft choice, in between the pipes. He looked calm, cool and collected in the early going just as Clermont did at the other end.
All of that changed at the 11:46 mark when Elmira’s Riley Boychuk beat Clermont with a shot from the right faceoff circle. Less than two minutes later, a Solar Bears penalty turned into instant offense when off a faceoff, Mike Vaskivuo fed Jordan Pietrus who spun around and found the back of the net with his shot.
Things got worse for Orlando (40-24-2-2, 84 points) a little over three minutes later when a turnover in its defensive end quickly became a Ryan Rashid backhander under the crossbar that pushed the Jackals lead to 3-0. When Dane Walters picked the top corner with a shot with just over a minute left in the frame, Elmira had a four goal lead while the Solar Bears looked for a way to get back into the game.
Finding that spark proved to be difficult. When the Solar Bears did create good scoring opportunities, Driedger was making the saves he had to make to end the threat. Orlando did manage to get a couple of shots past the rookie but Ian Slater and Cody Wild both heard the sickening clang of the puck hitting the goal post. Later on, Mickey Lang appeared to have put the puck into the net but it was waived off with no explanation given beyond the teams.
Clermont rebounded from the demoralizing first period to settle in and give his team a chance to make a comeback, keeping Elmira off the board until the final minute of the second when Kyle Bushee finished off an odd man rush with a score. Taylor Matson finally got the Solar Bears on the board at the 7:37 mark of the third period when he tipped in a Wild shot during an Orlando power play but it was all that Driedger would give up.
The Solar Bears will try to regroup Saturday night in Wheeling against a hot Nailers team. Wheeling has won five straight and is within two points of catching Orlando in the standings. Game time is set for 7 pm.
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