All of the teams in the Toronto Maple Leaf system are in the playoffs this season. Of these teams, the Marlies are the only one that's higher-seeded than their competitor. The ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears sank to fourth in the South Division this year, and are currently facing off against their perennial in-state rival, the first-seeded Florida Everblades, in the first round of the Kelly Cup Playoffs.
Last season, under then-coach Anthony Noreen, the Solar Bears did not see the post season. The season before, under Vince Williams, they made it to game seven of the first round by dint of Garret Sparks' strong showing in net. They lost the series by one goal in overtime.
Under Coach Drake Berehowsky, who suffered some health setbacks earlier this season, this is the first professional playoff berth that many of the young MarlieBears have seen since they joined the affiliate. The Solar Bears squeaked into the fourth slot due to the change in playoff format, in which the top four teams of each division all earned a berth.
In the weeks entering playoffs, there were troubling rumors of decreased attendance due to last season's disastrous number of home losses — a ship since righted by Berehowsky's season record (36-26-7-3, .569 win%). Season ticket holders began to message me, asking if I knew why their season ticket renewal offers, usually out earlier in the year, were so late. Could it be that the club was in financial straits?
After game two of the playoff series, the season ticket renewal came through, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. There will be at least another season of Solar Bears in Orlando, likely under the much-loved Berehowsky, who also coach during their first season "back from hibernation" in 2012-2013.
Ryan Massa, Rob Madore's goaltending partner for most of last season, emerged as the starter this season ahead of Kasimir Kaskisuo — Massa had a .912 SV% in 41 games played, to Kaskisuo's .899% in 32 games played. After goaltender injuries returned Kaskisuo to Toronto at the end of the regular season, he played in 7 AHL games, putting up a much better .934 in 7 games played (perhaps it was not a shock that he remained up, some players just don’t enjoy the E).
Mitch Gillam, formerly a Cornell University goaltender, was signed on after his college season ended to back up Massa. In two ECHL games so far, he's put up .833 SV% and a "welcome to the professional leagues" 6.34 GAA. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Berehowsky has yet to start him during the playoffs.
Round one summary
So how's the series been going? Surprisingly good. Despite facing the first-seeded Florida Everblades, Orlando took the first two games before losing in overtime in the third. Don Money has of course been following each game, and I will excerpt some of his more-interesting-to-Toronto-fans observations here.
Game 1 -- Don's recap, Solar Bears win 4-2
Goals from Taylor Doherty, C. Crane, Denver Manderson
Over the course of his seven-year professional hockey career, Taylor Doherty has played in more than 300 games, 256 of those in the American Hockey League and 86 more in the ECHL. Despite all those contests, he had not played in a single playoff game until Wednesday night when the Orlando Solar Bears faced off with the Florida Everblades. And boy was his post-season debut one for the books.
Game 2 -- Don's recap, Solar Bears win 3-2
Goals from Ryan Moore, Eric Baier, Justin Buzzeo
Buzzeo, who came to Orlando in a trade-deadline deal for Alex Gacek, scored his game-winner on a breakaway from the Florida defensive blue line after Shane Conacher disrupted an Everblades zone clear and created a turnover. Conacher poked the puck to Buzzeo who made a series of stick-handling moves before tucking the disc behind Florida goalie Alex Nedeljkovic for what may have been the biggest goal of his career to date.
Game 3 -- Don's recap, Everblades win 5-4
Goals from Denver Manderson, Mason Marchment, Eric Faille
Orlando got back into the contest 63 seconds after the Heard tally thanks to a hard push and some heads up passing. It came when defenseman Taylor Doherty launched a shot at the Florida net that Everblades goalie Anthony Peters knocked down. The rebound came to Shane Conacher who rifled a cross-ice pass to Manderson who put it past Peters on the short side for his second goal of the series.
Orlando plays game 4 tonight at 7 PM at Amway Arena -- watch them on ECHL.TV or listen in on Mixlr.