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Solar Bears in the mist: Growing pains

After the Solar Bears' first home loss of the season, 3-2 to the Everblades, coach Noreen meditates upon growth and good, hard hockey.

Massa saves 33 of 36 in loss to Everblades
Massa saves 33 of 36 in loss to Everblades
Orlando Solar Bears

Last week I listened to an episode of Travis Yost and Dimitri Filipovic’s Hockey PDOcast. One small side conversation popped into my head as I took my seat in the press loge of Amway Arena. "What kind of coverage do you want from your play-by-play announcers?" Yost asked Filipovic. "Do you want it to be totally homer, or 60-40, or 80-20?" "I think I want 60-40," Filipovic responded.

As I booted up my laptop, the voice of Amway, Paco Lopez, thundered out on the loudspeaker. He is unparalleled in his ability to throw shade with a vocal tone, and perhaps because he’s not a play-by-play announcer but the arena announcer, his coverage is not 60-40 nor 80-20. It’s 100-0. "These are the Everblades starters," Lopez said sullenly. "AND HERE ARE YOUR SOLAR BEARS!" And with that, our team in purple and teal began skating out from between the legs of a giant blow-up polar bear in sunglasses, through clouds of dramatically billowing mist.

After the theatrics were over and the game started in earnest, sometimes it was Lopez’s voice, and sometimes it was the determined play of the Solar Bears, that managed to keep all 7,511 people in the crowd alive and energized in the 3-2 loss to the Everblades. The story tonight was about how coach Anthony Noreen responded to adversity, and how the young Solar Bears handled a home loss to a good team. The answer was: Noreen and the Bears showed perhaps the best kind of response to a loss -- they learned from it. But more about that in a moment.

Here is a quick summary of the game before I dive into that territory. The Bears got off to a good start when Erik Bradford pushed a puck past Carolina Hurricanes prospect G Daniel Altshuller less than two minutes into the first, assisted by linemates Brett Findlay and Jack Rodewald. After this initial rush of energy, things began to get a little strange. I’m not used to referees calling things like slashing or hooking quite so liberally in the ECHL, but these refs were very earnest about their jobs.

During one of the Everblades power plays, Mike Aviani (a former Lightning prospect) lifted a dirty but effective rebound over the leg of Ryan Massa, evening up the score. Not long after that, once-a-Marlie Corey Syvret waited until Massa was nicely screened before sending in a shot from the top of the right circle. From the middle of the first to the middle of the second (which started with two more power plays), Everblades dominated this game.

Halfway through the 2nd, you’d think the Everblades’ third goal of the night from the amazingly named Evan Bloodoff (I kind of want that jersey), would sap the energy out of the crowd. It didn’t, because suddenly there was some jump to the Bears’ step. Possession shifted, and Bears that had been hemmed into their offensive zone became more desperate and alert. D Eric Baier, who went to Marlies training camp on a PTO this past September, answered for the Solar Bears, cutting the lead to 3-2.

A few mitigating factors went into tonight’s loss.

The Bears were short on D due to injuries, and ran with 5 D. This made for some tired defensemen, which became apparently in the 2nd period, when turnovers allowed the Everblades to gain possession and prevent the Bears from making any shots on goal for at least half a period.

Despite the lack of D there was no lack of chippiness. The Everblades and Solar Bears exist within a short bus ride of each other, which means that they see each other waaaaaaaay too often, and also means they hate each other. Six Bears saw the inside of the penalty box tonight, including a double minor for Toronto Marlies prospect Matt Rupert. Shots were 36-28 Everblades by the end of it all, mostly due to the many power play opportunities. The Solar Bears special teams, which are usually the strength of the team (and which I thought would be the gist of my story tonight), were outplayed by the Everblades.

When asked how he saw the game, Noreen responded in a positive yet thoughtful manner. "I thought we had a really good first couple shifts," he said, "I thought we set the tone. Then three penalties in a row — 150 feet away from our net, you know, kind of took the life out of our guys a little bit. You kill all three of those off, you probably win the hockey game. We let one in.

"I thought we were better in the second, especially about the midway point in the second, I thought we started taking it to them, especially five-on-five. I really liked us five-on-five. I started seeing the things we want more from the guys in the second half of the second, and the third period, I liked us.

"I thought right from the beginning of the third period, we felt up and down the bench that it was coming. Put a couple more minutes on that game, we felt like it was coming, so. The key is, it’s gotta be the same every shift. It’s gotta be consistent. Whether we take eight penalties, they take eight, it’s gotta be the same for 60 minutes."

So, how did the Solar Bears respond to this challenge, the challenge of their first home loss of the season, and of being outplayed? How did coach Noreen respond when I welcomed him to the press room with the words, "This is your first home loss, what was your perspective on the game"? Noreen replied in a way that emphasized development and growth, in keeping with his view of the team and the league:

"I think there was certainly some frustration. We’re a team — we like hard hockey, I mean we like honest hockey, you fight through sticks, stay on your feet, you battle, that’s what we like, that’s what we expect. I think the game got away from that a little bit, and we gotta handle it better. Our penalty kill has got to be a weapon. It’s been a weapon for us before, and it needs to be a weapon no matter how many penalties you take.

"I thought, again, that’s growing up, that’s maturing, that’s realizing that hey, no matter what the scoreboard says, or what the power plays are, you compete, you can be first on pucks, you play hard. Like I said, I thought as the game went, even when we were getting those penalties, and when we went down 5 on 3, there was nobody complaining on the bench — and I thought we grew as the game went, that was probably my favorite part of the game.

"I thought when we went down 5 on 3, not one complaint up and down the bench. We killed it, we got back to business."

There you have it. A coach who emphasizes development even (or perhaps especially) after a loss.

The Solar Bears meet the Everblades again on November 8, and I wonder whether the Tijuana Flats Penalty Box throws another party.

PS: When I live-tweet the Solar Bears games, (@tanyarezak), I tend to tweet about players from both teams that catch my eye. If you go back through twitter, you'll see links to Hockey DB profiles of Everblades players as well as Solar Bears players. This is because I believe in the ECHL as a development league, and think that people shouldn't forget about prospects lingering down in the minors. Go read!