The Orlando Solar Bears kicked off a three game series against the Brampton Beast — ECHL affiliates of the Montreal Canadiens [Really? - Acha] — on Thursday night at the Powerade Centre. This is the second series this season between the two teams. The first three-game series was in late November when the Beast travelled to Florida.

Last season the Solar Bears swept the Beast in Brampton in three straight games. This season, the Bears are off to a good start with a 5-3 win, but the Beast fought back hard Thursday night, and made sure it wasn’t easy.

“I think this league is a lot better than a lot of people give it credit for.” - Drake Berehowsky

Solar Bears’ Coach Drake Berehowsky jokingly said the reason they won was simply because “we scored more goals.” After a laugh, he did acknwoledge that goaltending played a crucial role in the Bears’ success for the night.

We’ll have a full recap Saturday of the first two games of this series, including a stellar performance by Eric Faille, but first I wanted to share insight from Solar Bears’ goalie Ryan Massa, who spoke at length about his development, the ECHL, and his point of view on why the Bears won.

Massa stopped 32 of 35 shots on goal, many of which came on the three-of-four penalties successfully killed off by the Bears during the game.

His first and foremost credit goes to the effort and support offered from all levels of the Maple Leafs organization. “It’s all about development. I think the Maple Leafs do a phenomenal job of sending their personnel on a regular basis down to work on games.”

He cited Marlies goaltending guru Piero Greco as a particularly important pillar of support. “When called up, when I’m up with the Marlies, it’s just all work on the details. You get to be with [Greco] every day.” Massa added Greco is never more than a phone call away for advice and analysis.

He understands moving his hockey career to the next professional level isn’t something that can be done in office hours. "I trained really hard all summer. During the year I've maintained my body really well, and taken good care of myself. This is the time of the year that matters the most. If you don’t take care of the body during the year, this time of year certainly is a lot harder on yourself. I credit our off-ice training staff too.”

Given the distance between Orlando and Brampton, it’s obvious the Beast are not a team the the Solar Bears see very often. Thursday was the fourth game against the team this season, the previous being four months ago. Massa said that wasn’t a problem because of the support received from the Solar Bears staff. "I think a lot of it comes down to our pre-scout video that we watch before games [about their] specialty teams; what they like to do, their tendencies on the power play. If we can shut down power-plays, and have our penalty kill give our team momentum [we’ll win].”

Watching games, you can see the ECHL is as different from the AHL as the AHL is from the NHL. Plays happen slower, there’s a lot more mixing of forward lines, and generally a bit more sloppiness. It was possible to pick out players who are ready for a higher level, like Tony Camaranesi, whose speed was obvious as he out-skated almost any Beast player he was up against on breakouts, breakaways, or a rush to grab the puck.

However, in the modern world of goaltending, where perfection is pursued at all times, Massa notes this disparity and how it ironically makes things more challenging for a goalie. “[In] the American League I think you have guys who could easily play in the NHL. It’s a much more predictable game; guys make the right play pretty much 90% of the time. In the ECHL there’s a lot of broken plays, a lot of in-tight deflections bouncing off four different things, really kind of crazy bounces. In the American League guys are really strong structure wise. You make the first save and they take care of the second and third opportunities for you.”

Massa was undrafted. He played in the NCAA while completed his degree over four seasons, joining the Solar Bears in the 2015-16 season. He is now 26 years-old.

Berehowsky says he thinks Massa has potential to move up, and that Maple Leafs fans should take more notice of what is happening with players like Massa on the Solar Bears. “I think this league is a lot better than a lot of people give it credit for. I think as a goalie [Massa] matured a little later, [but] the experience down here will help him be a better goalie up there. He got tested a lot more in this league than he would have in the American League.”

Massa is ready to go again if the coach puts him net, saying, “I’m really happy with the preparation we put in to tonight’s game, and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”

The Solar Bears play the second of their three game series against the Brampton Beast Friday night; puck drop is at 7:00 PM EDT.