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Solar Bears clinch playoff berth

Garret Sparks' fifth shutout vs. first-seeded Everblades guarantees Bears' slot.

Brad Ross and Garret Sparks of the Orlando Solar Bears
Brad Ross and Garret Sparks of the Orlando Solar Bears
Linda Hamilton

Just one point. That’s all the Solar Bears needed going into tonight’s match against the first-in-division Florida Everblades, and with a single regulation goal from defenseman Max Nicastro they got two, ending the game 1-0. With these two points the Solar Bears secured the fourth and final playoff slot in the East Division, ending the hopes of fifth-place rival Greenville Road Warriors.

Garret Sparks saved all 33 shots from the Everblades to record his fifth shut-out of the season and earn first star of the game.

The win also secured the Solar Bears’ next few weeks worth of fate — they’ll see a whole lot more of the Florida Everblades in the near future. With two games left against this division rival in the regular season, the Bears are firmly in fourth place, meaning that they could face the first-seeded Everblades up to nine more times in the next few weeks during the first round of playoffs.

The Everblades have home ice for the first two games at Germain Arena in Estero, making this Florida playoff series a short (three-hour) bus trip for the Solar Bears and their fans.

Last night’s game was one of the last three that ends the fifteen game series against the Everblades, a series that saw the Bears battling uphill to maintain a steady 5-6-2. The game was also the Solar Bears’ home closer. On a Thursday night with a playoff berth on the line, the building filled early with supporters in purple and orange, an announced crowd of 7181 to keep Amway fourth in ECHL league attendance. More than a few fans sported distinctive white bear hats.

Before the game began, news came from the north that Marlies' F Brad Ross had been sent down to help with the Solar Bears' playoff push. Coach Vince Williams worked Brad Ross into the game immediately to qualify him. Ross had limited minutes at first, rotating with F Scott Tanski on the fourth line. "Ross is a great kid, well-liked in the room, and he can step right into our system," Williams said. "I had no trouble fitting him in right away. He got better as the game went on."

The game itself was a strange one, but it happens when a team battling for a playoff spot goes up against the team that has already clinched first in division. The Everblades' list of scratches was long, but Lightning prospect Allen York was in net. York's record against the Solar Bears is an impressive 5-2-0-1, 0.913 SV%, and the game could've gone in any direction.

The first period saw even chances between the teams with Sparks and York both holding strong, right up until Nicastro's slapshot from the blue line midway through the period. That shot, neatly passing the man screening York, was the first and last the Solar Bears needed. Everblades shots mounted through the second due to several Solar Bears' penalties, causing me to bite my nails and ask the reporter next to me whether Greenville had any chance at a playoff berth if the Solar Bears lost the game -- and he didn't reassure me at all. "If the Solar Bears lose the next three and Greenville wins the next two, their ROW would win them the slot," Don Money said.

Everyone was nervous at the opening of the third except for Sparks. Under the watchful eye of his goaltending coach Piero Greco, who had traveled down to Orlando for the game, Sparks looked sharp in the net. The first half of the third passed without a Solar Bears' shot until the ninth minute. Sparks followed the play with a hawk's eye, once spotting a slapshot through a screen and playing well forward to deflect the shot with his legs. The game changed halfway through the period, making the final ten minutes exciting and tense as the Everblades earned penalties that gave the Bears a brief 5-on-3. Shots evened up quickly, but the Solar Bears couldn't convert on their chances due to some excellent goaltending from York.

The final minute is best told through my game-time tweets:

...Thus ending Greenville's hopes.

After the victory, Williams addressed reporters about the upcoming possible nine games against the Everblades. With two games against them left in the regular season, Williams said that the team didn't want to be content with clinching the berth, and remained focused on getting themselves into playoff form. "These are two important games, and we will take them seriously," he said.

I am happy to add that I will be attending playoff games three and four in Solar Bears territory, later this month. Stay tuned!

Here are a few more tweets to show the atmosphere of a home game at Amway.

And finally: