The Orlando Solar Bears are, as you know, the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  With 46 games played out of a 72-game season, they are in second place in their division, and while they can’t catch the Florida Everblades in first, they should be able to hold off any chasing teams.  Playoffs are almost certain.

Not much is certain in the ECHL.  The difficulty of playing in this league is that from one night to the next, the roster may change, forwards become defenders and the other way around, and your best players may get on a plane and never come back. Unlike in the AHL, there isn’t a team to just call players up from.

Filling holes in the lineup is more complex, and the Solar Bears recently filled one on defence by signing a player out of the SPHL.  Meanwhile, the Marlies just acquired a new defender and played him on Tuesday: Frank Corrado.  But they have yet to send down any of the extra defenders they’re carrying, and perhaps they won’t with Rinat Valiev still out with an injury.

The moto of the ECHL should probably be: Ours is not to wonder why.  So they don’t wonder; they just get on with the game with what they have.  What the Solar Bears had in Tuesday night’s game in Atlanta against the Gladiators was too few forwards.  They made it work.

Tuesday Night’s Lineup

Joe Perry-Milos Bubela-Shane Conacher
Chase Witala-Austin Block-Alex Gacek
Mason Marchment-Chris Crane-Darik Angeli
Alexandre Carrier

Brenden Miller-Ben Danford
Chris Bradley-Daniel Maggio
Kyle Shapiro-Eric Baier

Kasimir Kaskisuo in goal.

The Solar Bears have officially classified Daniel Maggio as a defender, and while he has mostly played as a forward in the AHL, he has experience on the blueline.  Missing from the lineup were Denver Manderson, the top point man on the team, and Chad LaRose, an NHL veteran trying to make a comeback.

Also gone were the three forwards who are currently on the Marlies helping to fill in for the long list of injuries on that team.  What was left included a lot of the backbone players on the team like Chris Crane, Darik Angeli and captain Eric Baier.

Who is of primary interest to Leaf fans here?

Kasimir Kaskisuo is the only player on an NHL contract, and while he had a bad start to the season, he has settled into better form.  He’s dealing with a less than stellar set of defenders in front of him, so it’s never a good idea to assume a low scoring game is on the horizon or that his save percentage is truly representative of his play.

Daniel Maggio, 25 years old, is an interesting AHL signing.  Originally I thought he was just a goon, but shortages have force him to play a meaningful role for the Solar Bears, and for the Marlies, and he’s proving, perhaps to himself, that he can.  He barely fights, relative to his old habits, at least, and he has only 19 PIM in 11 games in the ECHL.

Shane Conacher, 22,  is a winger who has just joined the team and who we might see on the Marlies soon. He seems to be a driver of offence on any line he is on and he has four points in five games so far.

Mason Marchment, 21, also an AHL signing, is a grittier fellow, but he looked plausible on the Marlies and may grow into a sort of Colin Greening type role in the future.

Chase Witala, 21, is more of a straight-up goal-scorer than Marchment, and so far it seems like the ECHL might be his level.  If it is, he’s at the top of it, but the gap can be intimidating to go from the E to the A.

The home team Tuesday night was the Atlanta Gladiators, and they are the affiliate of the Boston Bruins, so naturally we should all hate them.  There are a few ex-Solar Bears in the lineup, but I did not recognize any other names.

The Game

Period One

Kaskisuo had to make one very quick save, and then Orlando moved the puck up ice and applied some pressure.  There was a turnover, and Kaskisuo made another good save.  He faced more pressure off a defensive zone faceoff that led to Atlanta getting some shots on goal.

Orlando was showing very poor puck control early, moving in offside, icing it under light pressure, and chopping at it when they should have been making a clean zone-exit play. Atlanta just had to wait to be handed the puck, and they’d be away with a chance.

After yet another defensive zone faceoff which led to a shot right on Kaskisuo, he snowangeled the save, but got it done.

When Orlando was moving the puck effectively, they carried it in.  They are not a chip it out, dump it in team.

One of the challenges of running a team in the ECHL is that you have to play a system that works in the league but is still recognizable to an AHL player that comes down. You have to be sending up players to the AHL who can fit in there as well.

Orlando’s Alexandre Carrier threw a puck on net and a good thing happened! It went off a skate and in. 1-0 Orlando early in the period.

Atlanta’s goalie, Matt Ginn, made a good save on a better play by Orlando, a centring pass to man left alone in slot. It seemed the tide had turned and Orlando was sorting out their puck movement.

But some light pressure from Atlanta quickly resulted in a goal.  Kaskisuo totally fell for a fake move, and his positioning was bad letting an easy shot from the circle sail by him. It was one all.

Orlando have players who should be good at maintaining forechecking pressure, but they get over the blue line and lose the puck too easily.  They bucked that trend with some offensive zone time achieved through passing and checking, and then Marchment, one of the ones who should be good at this, drew a penalty.

The penalty call was a little weak, and you should know you have to be very careful after one of those.  Nope.  Orlando took one of their own and it was four-on-four hockey for nearly two minutes.

Orlando faced a three on one that was saved mostly by a defender, and then they iced the puck again.  The good play had ebbed away.

Kaskisuo ebbed and flowed as well for the rest of the period. He make one save where he clearly had no idea where he’d sent the rebound.  Minutes later, he made a series of good saves off of solid positioning.

Orlando could take the puck easily off of Atlanta as they tried to enter the zone, but Atlanta was just as easily picking up turnovers in their defensive zone to come back.  Orlando had a better zone entry, but when Atlanta did get in deep on the Solar Bears, they set up camp, made a fire, got the coffee on, and generally stayed for a spell.

At the end of the first period the shots on goal were 11-10 for Orlando and the score was still one all.

Second Period

Orlando made it 2-1 in the first minute of the second on an easy shot Ginn should have had.

Again, the Orlando defence were using active sticks to disrupt Atlanta, and they turned the puck over off of attempted entries a lot.

Shane Conacher showed his passing ability, made very effective offensive plays, and his line always seemed dangerous.  The Solar Bears are just so close to really clicking as a team.

Kaskisuo struggled to corral a bouncing puck and Orlando got away with knocking the net off.

Minutes later, he made a save, ended up out of position, and had no idea the puck was behind him.  The defence cleaned the house for him, but he was not tracking the puck well at all.

Shortly after, Kaskisuo made a great save on breakaway, popped an easy rebound right to an Orlando player to tidy it up like that was how things always went.

Atlanta got passive for a while, did some puck watching, and gave up a power play that Orlando couldn’t capitalize on.

Conacher’s passing and positional play is stellar, but his shot choices seemed very haphazard during the power play.

Kaskisuo had to make some scramble saves in a lot of close pressure, and Orlando seemed to fade into passivity for a while.  Inevitably, they took a penalty

Their penalty kill was terrible.  They gave up four shots in seconds, and only Kaskisuo kept them going.  They had worse to offer, however.  Orlando cleared the puck deep and then smugly changed up the PK unit ponderously slow. Ginn, who is known for his puck handling, sent a beautiful stretch pass up-ice while the Solar Bears were stumbling over each other getting in the bench door.  Atlanta scored on the resulting four-on-one, as you tend to do.  Ginn got a good cheer from the faithful Gladiator crowd for his assist.  It was two all.

Not happy with a mere trash fire, Orlando set the whole dump alight with continuing bad defensive play, puck watching, and passive wandering in their own zone.  Atlanta scored again in seconds, and it was 3-2 for the Gladiators.

And then the game was on.

After even more pressure, Orlando finally took control of the puck back in their own zone, and they transformed back into the impressive transition team they can be.  They roared up the ice, in it went, Alex Gacek from Chase Witala, and it was 3-3.

The Solar Bears liked that, so they did it again.  They made a really nice offensive play with speed, a good pass up ice, a good second pass across the crease, and in the net again.  Witala from Gacek made it 4-3 Solar Bears.

Their next penalty kill was much better, tighter, but it is a system that relies on clearing the puck and maintaining the box configuration.  There is no aggressive short-handed fun to be had for them like the Leafs or the Marlies produce.

At the end of the second period, the shots on goal were nearly tied at 25-24, the score was 4-3, but Orlando would have been well out ahead on the score if not for their two minutes or so of bad decisions.

Third Period

The Solar Bears did not star the third period with much oomph.  They made a whole series of foolish plays: Kaskisuo turned it over himself; they got the puck back; turned it over, and Kaskisuo finally made the save.

As soon as they got to the other end of the ice, all was well.  They played the puck around behind the net well, employed their shoot it from anywhere technique, and in it went off a skate again. Fluke goals only happen when you shoot the puck.  5-3 Solar Bears, and Witala got this one.

Orlando took a penalty which gave Atlanta another shot at that passive penalty kill. 5-4 Solar Bears.

Atlanta got the puck in deep, kept it in, kept it in, kept it in, passed it around, won the board battles and Kaskisuo lost his own rebound again.  Atlanta worked hard and was rewarded with an easy goal.  The score was five all.

Orlando faced some pressure in the period, and Kaskisuo made some saves, the net got knocked off again, and they were doing some rebound clearing.  They were also icing the puck.  Kaskisuo bailed out some terrible defensive zone work and then missed a shot completely.  It went high, but was a total failure to track the puck.

Orlando, finally with some zone time, tried some more ‘any shot is a good shot’ offense and nearly got another goal.

With the score tied, and the game seemingly destined to go to overtime, Atlanta took a penalty with six minutes left.  Orlando got their power play set up on the move, they shot the puck, Ginn handed them a rebound and Conacher had the whole net to shoot at.  6-5 Orlando.

They held that score until the last two minutes of the game when Atlanta pulled the goalie.  Two empty net goals followed, which made the final score 8-5 for Orlando.

The shots on goal were even at 34-34, and the deciding factor could have been the Solar Bears defensive shortcomings without some timely work by Kaskisuo.  Instead, their offensive structure carried the day.  From their own blue line north to the slot, they were the better team.  In their own end?  They could really use one of those extra Marlies defenders.

Kaskisuo looked to me exactly like he did in training camp: a positionally sound goalie with a lot of tracking issues who also isn’t as agile as he should be when he gets out of position.  Is he ready for promotion to the AHL next year?  Maybe.  But he would never be the one carrying the team the way the Marlies best goalie is.