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Sparks, Solar Bears turn series tide in 5-2 win

Despite shots at 50 to 19 in favor of the Everblades, the Solar Bears got a crucial win after losing the first two games of the playoff series.

Garret Sparks during game three of the ECHL playoffs
Garret Sparks during game three of the ECHL playoffs
Linda Hamilton

If you looked at tonight’s shots, 50 to 19 Everblades, and looked at the score, 5 to 2, you’d probably draw the wrong conclusion.

The playoff series began in the Everblades’ territory far south of us in Estero. The Bears lost the first game by a little, 3-2; but the second game was a 5-1 rout with most of the Bears’ time spent hemmed into their own zone. In tonight’s game, the first at home, Garret Sparks took care of 48 of the 50 shots, and the team in front of him converted on 4 of the 19, achieving the win.

"I don’t think the series got off to the start I wanted it to," Garret Sparks admitted. "I put a lot of pressure on myself. I had a good talk with Toronto’s goalie coach, Piero Greco, today. He told me to just go have fun, you know, to enjoy the experience for what it is. We worked hard to get here, and we’re the underdogs, so just go out and play. That’s what I tried to do, and I think I’m just going to go with that from now on."  Whatever Sparks did, worked.

The Solar Bears obviously played with desperation tonight. This game was their first with home-ice advantage, and the home crowd (an announced crowd of 4,869 of us, pretty good for a Tuesday night in Orlando) were hanging on, right along with Garret Sparks.

Before tonight’s game, coach Vince Williams said, "We have to do a lot of things better -- we have to play a full sixty minutes of structure." To help the battle he brought in two players who’ve been down and up and down again, Trenton Devils’ F Ben Johnson, and former Vancouver Canuck D Yann Sauve.

Things began in home-town style. "Don’t Poke the Bear" appeared on the jumbotron, and the crowd cheered to welcome the team home. The scratches were announced, and I realized that one of the Leafs’ prospects had been scratched -- D Eric Knodel, who ended the last game with a point and +/- of 1, not bad considering the final score. He was scratched in favor of Sauve.

The first period was a rough one -- no, rough is a weak description. Annoyed? Physical? Chippy? The Everblades looked frankly sick of the Solar Bears in this game (which is actually the sixth in a row they’ve played against the Bears at this point) -- and the Solar Bears were clearly just as sick of the Everblades.

New/old guy Sauve sparked a plodding game by knocking some guy in the head with his glove… er, I mean, roughing someone. Energized by the atmosphere, Johnny McInnis scored his first goal of the night soon after that, catching  Syracuse Crunch prospect Allen York way out of position and putting his own rebound into a wide-open net. The shot left York lying in pain on the ice with something going on (groin pulled? who knows), but York decided to remain in the game. The first period ended with shots 7-6, Bears.

The second period was frankly weird. Solar Bears lost their rough-and-annoyed edge but scored two goals right at the outset, McInnis’s second and Johnson’s first, within less than a minute of each other. But after the second Florida power play, the Bears played as though they'd worn themselves out -- cue Williams’ words about playing a full sixty minutes. The second half of the period was all Florida, with two Florida goals in three minutes by Mike Cornell and Casey Pierro-Zabotel. Although they were still down by one, the shots mounted from two Florida power plays to end the period with shots 30-14, Everblades.

Both of Florida’s goals on Garret Sparks came from defensive breakdowns that allowed a Florida player in alone -- and both also flew in over Sparks’ left shoulder. After six games in a row (including the three that ended the regular season), the Everblades apparently know the Bears’ defense and Sparks, inside and out.

Patrick Watling

Patrick Watling

During the second intermission the Bears’ must’ve listened to a rousing speech from Williams, because the last period began with a bang: a goal from D Eric Baier, with an assist from the first Marlies prospect to show up on the score sheet, Patrick Watling, a mere 51 seconds into the third. Sparks showed up during the PK that happened immediately after, using his lanky limbs to good effect to stop a barrage of high shots while (basically) on his arse in the slot doing the splits. The rest of the period was played in what seemed like an endless round of penalty kills, shots mounting for the Everblades to end the game at 50 to 19.

With frustration mounting, the game erupted in another brawl with six minutes left, with dual roughing calls on the Bears' Jacob Cepis and Blades' Mike Cornell (who also got a ten-minute misconduct). After the dust settled, somehow the Bears ended up on the power play, but not for long. With the goalie pulled, the last few minutes were an exciting six-on-four with the Everblades pressuring hard. Sparks held strong, and Brady Vail scored the fifth Bears’ goal of the night into an empty net.

The game was a good game for Sparks, and a pretty bad game for York, who looked a little stiff in the slot after his rough first period. I wonder if we’ll see his backup, Daniel Altshuller (Charlotte Checkers prospect), at the fourth game of the series on Thursday. It was an important win, and will hopefully swing momentum to keep the Bears in the mood to split the series, for real.

I’ll see you and the Solar Bears on Thursday!