ORLANDO, FLA – On the second night of the 2020-21 ECHL regular season, the Orlando Solar Bears found themselves on the road and the short end of a 4-2 score to the Florida Everblades. It was certainly not the way Orlando Head Coach and General Manager Drake Berehowsky wanted to start but it was just the first of a 72-game schedule.
Fast forward 18 days to Wednesday night and game two of the Solar Bears’ home schedule and boy what a difference.
In front of a COVID-restricted audience of 2,250 at the Amway Center, Orlando (4-1-0-0) put on a show, spotting the visiting Everblades (5-2-0-0) the first two before scoring seven of the next nine to roll to a 7-4 victory. For the Solar Bears, it was the team’s fourth straight victory and set a new franchise mark for best start to a season since they joined the ECHL back in 2012.
The Solar Bears got plenty of big performances in the contest. Rookie goalie Michael Lackey allowed a goal on the first shot he faced but settled in as the game went, stopping 32 of 36 shots to pick up his first professional win. Then there was the cadre of players assigned to Orlando by the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch. Led by rookie forwards Nikita Pavlychev (goal, assist, 4 shots on net), Ryan Lohin (2 goals on 2 shots) and Peter Abbandonato (2 assists) the seven assigned skaters combined for 4 goals, 4 assists, 12 shots on net, 1 fight and an aggregate plus/minus rating of plus-6.
Lackey, who came off the injured reserve list earlier in the week when Garret Sparks was loaned to the Calgary Flames, got the start in the second game of a back-to-back and had the task of shutting down a very angry Everblades team that was coming off a loss in Jacksonville on Monday. The visitors caught a break 43 seconds into the opening period when a shot by Cameron Hebig was blocked but the puck went to Blake Winiecki who buried it behind Lackey for his third of the season.
The emotions and bad blood that usually bubble up between the in-state rivals came seven minutes later when Florida’s Kyle Neuber got some revenge on Orlando’s Dmitry Semykin for a hit in the first meeting during a fight that showed what can happen when an experienced pugilist meets a rookie.
When Myles Powell tucked a backhander under Lackey out of a scramble in front of the net for his second of the season at the 12:50 mark, it looked like Florida was possibly on its way to yet another victory. The Solar Bears had other plans and when Abbandonato took a carom off the end boards and fed Lohin who whistled a shot over the left shoulder of Everblades goalie Cam Johnson, the margin was cut to 2-1. For Lohin, it was his third of the year and second in as many nights.
After escaping a Florida power play during which Alex Kyle rang the post, the Solar Bears began to turn up the heat. A loose puck in the visitor’s end was chased down by Orlando’s Tyler Bird who fired on net. Johnson made the save but Tristin Langan beat a defender and popped the puck home for his second in as many nights at 1:49 to even the score.
The home team took the lead at the 7:40 mark when Abbandonato circled behind the Florida net and found a wide open Jimmy Huntington in front. Huntington wasted no time, whipping a quick shot past Johnson’s blocker for his second. Aaron Luchuk finished the Orlando four-goal run when he took the puck at center ice, skated in and turned the corner on a defender before finding the back of the net for his first tally as a Solar Bear at 12:32 to make it 4-2.
The Everblades, as they usually do when facing adversity, dug in and cut the lead in half when Levko Koper tucked the rebound of a drive to the cage by Cole MacDonald home for his first of the year, making the score 4-3 late in the second.
A one goal lead is never safe against a high-powered offense like Florida has but on this night, Orlando had all the answers. During a penalty kill at the start of the final frame, Solar Bears defenseman Kevin Lohan broke out on an odd-man charge with team captain Chris LeBlanc. As the defense focused on Lohan, the blueliner slid a cross-ice pass to LeBlanc who had plenty of room to whistle a hard wrist shot past Johnson for his second of the year to restore the two goal lead. A couple of minutes later during an Orlando power play, the rookie Pavlychev was parked in front and redirected a shot by Patrick McNally home for his first professional goal at 4:40, making the score 6-3 and sending the fans into happy dances in the stands.
Michael Huntebrinker cleaned up the rebound of a Michael Downing shot off an offensive zone faceoff to trim the margin to 6-4 but it was as close as the visitors would get. With Johnson (17 saves) on the bench for an extra attacker late, Lohin picked off an Everblades pass and dialed in the empty net from his own end for his second of the night to close the scoring.
The two teams will get to enjoy the New Year as they are both off until Saturday when they meet again at Hertz Arena in Estero at 7 p.m. before returning to the City Beautiful on Sunday for a 3 p.m. matinee puck drop.
Notes: Final shots were 36-24 in favor of Florida… The Everblades went 0-for-2 on the power play while the Solar Bears were 1-for-2 with the man advantage… Orlando rookie defenseman Alex Green, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, entered the game with a plus-5 rating. He was plus-3 on Wednesday, moving his total to plus-8 to put him atop the rookie list… Orlando’s LeBlanc netted his 36th career goal with the Solar Bears, tying him for fourth on the ECHL franchise’s all-time list with Trevor Olson. It was also his sixth career short-handed tally, pulling him even with Olson for the top spot in team history… With two points, Luchuk extended his consecutive games point streak to three games (1 goal, 4 assists).
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