Four minutes into the third, the Solar Bears began to look a little ragged. They'd spent most of the game driving possession, despite giving up three goals in the second, but they'd just encountered something deflating: an equalizing goal from defenseman Mark Louis was waved off due to goaltender interference.
The replay made the entire crowd at Amway Center rain boos upon the ice, and for a while the chant of "Ref, you suck!" rang through the building. All 7,420 people watching were united in their disappointment, and despite continued pressure on Everblades goaltender Anthony Peters, the game ended in a 4-3 loss.
Shots finished at 32-29, Everblades, but a good 7 of the 29 Bears shots came in the last few minutes of the third, which highlights Orlando's main issue tonight: when the team possesses the puck for most of the game but can't find the net for a shot, either the opponent has a tremendous forecheck, or the team needs a tenacious finisher, or maybe both.
The Everblades' 32 shots were taken in dense, swift pockets. When the Everblades had the puck they concentrated fiercely on getting it in the net -- they had players in the slot to pot rebounds, and generally created enough traffic for four different players to catch Madore out of position. The first Everblades goal was scored by first-year player Matt Willows, who is currently leading the league in rookie points, and three goals in the second came from Logan Roe, Matt Marquardt, and Corey Cowick.
Midway through the season, the Solar Bears are losing more than they are winning, with a record of 10-12-2-3. They're losing at home (5-7-0-0), which is a letdown for the home crowd, although Orlando hockey lovers are still so supportive that the majority of the crowd stayed and cheered until the very last seconds of the third, despite the impossibility of regaining that equalizing goal.
30 seconds left to get the tying goal. The house is still full in Orlando, nobody's left the building. We love our hockey, win or lose.— Acha (@tanyarezak) December 28, 2015
During the second period, in which the Solar Bears gave up three goals in a row, an Orlando fan tweeted a question about whether the team could adequately balance being a development league for the Leafs system with being a good ECHL team that wins games.
When the press posed this question to Kyle Dubas at the beginning of the season, his answer was: when players develop, they win. This begs the question: are the Leafs system players still developing?
Noreen was introspective about the loss, and said that even though it seemed like yet another loss to the Everblades (the Solar Bears are 0-4 against this team, currently first in the Eastern Conference), he was heartened by the development he's seen.
Coach Noreen contemplates playing well and still losing to the Everblades. pic.twitter.com/rhM5JMqMDR— Acha (@tanyarezak) December 28, 2015
Even in tonight's game, he saw development: "When we played within our structure I loved us tonight. I thought we were as good as we've been in our structure all year, and the goals against, none of them were structural breakdowns, they were individual big mistakes. While those are hard to live with...at the same time, I think it builds confidence in our guys when you do it right, and you're playing supposedly the best team in our league.
"I don't know what the puck possession numbers are, I haven't looked at them yet, but I think it was right up there with our best games yet this year. And like I said, I don't know if we ever spent more than 10, 15 seconds in our D-zone. Maybe once or twice the whole game. We stayed out of the box, we skated well with them, it's a good game, and you know it's going to be a one goal game when we play them."
Rob Madore, returned from the Toronto Marlies just yesterday, toed a harder line about the loss, saying that because the team is now midway through the schedule, "There's not a lot of time left to be making excuses, we've got to start winning now, and start pulling out of those games with two points instead of one or none. They had four goals. Obviously if you're a competitive person you want to have every single shot, so I wish I could've had all four of them."
Not all was bleak about this hard-fought game. The second star of the game was forward Lindsay Sparks, who earned it through his fierce determination to score goals. Sparks' first goal came from a shot that was initially stopped by Peters, and then poked in from under him through sheer tenacity. Sparks' second goal was earned when he outran the Everblades D to pot it with one second left in the period -- making a play instead of watching the clock.
Orlando is now tied for league-leader in shorthanded goals, with tonight's coming from forward Johnny McInnis.
Are Orlando players still developing despite the losses, and is the team striking the right balance between its concentration on development and being competitive in the league? This is a tough question that will continue to be asked as long as Orlando has an affiliation with Toronto, and it will probably take until the end of the season to answer it to anyone's satisfaction.
Orlando and Toronto are in the final year of their affiliation, and so far, there has been no word about negotiating a continued connection.