Three-in-three game recaps from Don Money: Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Playing in the ECHL, there are a few teams that (due to proximity) Orlando sees all the time. Orlando sees the Florida Everblades so often that the organizations decided to make it more fun. They declared it a rivalry with an intrastate cup on the line -- the season series is called the Wawa Sunshine Cup, and the series is FOURTEEN games long.

The series is so long that Solar Bears writers almost know the Everblades players as well as the Solar Bears ones. Like, for example, Everblades rookie sensation Matt Willows, who in the course of this three-in-three against Orlando scored enough to keep him tied for first in the league in rookie points.

The Everblades, a Carolina Hurricanes affiliate, are ranked first in the fourteen teams that make up the ECHL's East Conference. The Solar Bears are fighting hard to rise, and are currently in 11th place -- why? Perhaps because they've met the strongest team in the conference seven times already this season. Out of these seven meetings, two of them are wins, and these both happened on the first two days of a three-in-three that opened the new year.

The middle game of the three-in-three was a beautiful home victory, the kind that Solar Bears fans had been starving for. This Saturday night game was televised locally, and even more viewers than the 7,661 people in the announced crowd cheered on the Bears as they defeated the Everblades 3-1.

Jack Rodewald, newly returned from the Marlies, had a multi-point night. He opened scoring scant minutes into the first, catching a pass from Brady Vail. The goal did not come from Rodewald's initial shot, but after Everblades goaltender Anthony Peters deflected it, Rodewald managed to shovel in the rebound for his fifth goal of the season. Rodewald was the playmaker later, setting up Denver Manderson on a play to beat Peters over the shoulder. Possession was evenly maintained, with SOG ending 33-33. The difference was the tenacity with which Orlando players stuck to the puck.

...And here I will break up this weekend recap with an interlude in an elevator.

I was just pondering the fact that I cited possession in terms of shots on goal, and remembered something: yesterday, during first intermission, Don Money and I went on a pizza run to the hospitality suite. In the elevator we ran into a Solar Bears employee named Dan. He mentioned that he was employed to track on-ice stats for the team.

"Today I'm tracking plus/minus," Dan said. "It's less exhausting than yesterday, when I was tracking puck possession."

I later found out from Don that this staff is hired by the Solar Bears to help improve the team through careful tracking of various statistics, and these are sent on to the league, although these in-house statistics are not kept in a place where I can access them for these articles. Next time I'm at Amway (in three weeks, when the team is back from their road trip), I'll ask for more information.

The last game of the three-in-three was kind of like watching shinny, and the 5,573 Solar Bears fans who braved a chilly and rainy night in Orlando seemed to have some compassion for the exhausted teams. The final score, 4-1, makes freshly-returned-from-the-Marlies goaltender Rob Madore look worse than he was.

Madore managed to keep the game 2-1 until the last few minutes of the third. Coach Anthony Noreen pulled Madore, and the Everblades scored. He pulled Madore again, and the Everblades scored again. The game came down to two tired teams trying their best to bury chances -- and the Everblades, perhaps motivated by their last two nights of losses, were the team that found the drive to do it.

The game opened with a goal from third star of the game, Toronto Marlies prospect TJ Foster. D Eric Baier sent a fantastic Victor Hedman-esque pass from the Orlando D-zone up to Foster, who received it crisply, skated forward, and buried it five-hole on Peters. That was the beginning and ending of Orlando's tallies, however. They were outshot 25-19, although the uneven shots are in some part due to the getting double the number of penalties that the Everblades did.

One more aside: these two teams are sick of each other. However, it's kind of worn down to a weary "Oh, you again," which is a relief from the chippiness for the first three or four games of their series. I'm not sure whether this is because the staff got together and said, "Hey, let's try our best not to make this an all-out turf war," or whether the Solar Bears are simply charged to concentrate on hockey, but it makes for better games for people who love watching actual hockey.

After that first goal came two periods of wilting. I think the game is best recounted through the eyes of Foster, who showed a sound understanding of his part in it, and an intelligent grasp of the game as a whole, during the post-game presser.

Q: TJ, that first goal seemed to be one of the big ways the offense got going with those long passes, what did you see breaking out and getting that long pass?TJ: I think one of our gameplans all year has been the weak [side] winger, you know, stretching the zone and pushing the D back, and the weak [side] D got caught up and I just kind of slipped behind him and Baier, Eric, he made a really nice pass for me to get that half breakaway, and I just wanted to get a shot on net early to see what happens, and I think I got lucky a bit and went five-hole. It felt good to get one first shift of the game, and get going.

Q: What was the difference tonight versus the last two games?

TJ: I think tonight we didn't capitalize on all of our chances. We had a few breakaways that we didn't bury, and early in the third, if I get that breakaway, it's a 2-1 game, and then THEY came back right after and scored to make it 2-1, so it kind of flipped there. They buried on that one chance, and we had to come back, and we just couldn't do it tonight.

Q: How much gas did you guys have in the tank, I mean, third game in three days, it affected both teams, but it seemed like especially in the third period, neither side had anything going.

TJ: Yeah, three-in-threes are tough, especially against a big, strong team like Florida. I think you can't really attribute the game to that. We were both playing our third game in three nights. So I think it just came down to one team burying and -- we didn't. So I think it just comes down to that.

Q: Seems like you guys had a lot of trouble fighting through the neutral zone tonight. What were they doing in particular that was difficult to break through?

TJ: I think they made a couple of adjustments against us. I couldn't really pinpoint it, I didn't notice it personally, but it was just one of those scrambly games, it seems like it was back and forth and there wasn't a lot of structure in the game, and the pucks were just kind of in and out. It was one of those games, third game in three nights, so we kept it simple. You get pucks in, you get pucks out, I think it was just kind of one of those games. Not a lot of crispness was in the game.

Q: What kind of positives do you guys take from this weekend when you head out on this long road trip?

TJ: Before this weekend we were in a bit of a slump, and getting two wins against the top team in our conference obviously helps the confidence, we're on a road trip coming up against some teams that are right around us, and some that are higher, so. It'll be nice to see some new teams, and not Florida again. But yeah it'll be nice to get back on the road and hang out with the guys all the time, and hopefully get a good road trip going, and hopefully get some momentum coming into February where we play at home the entire month.

I also asked coach Noreen how he felt about the Leafs goaltending situation this past month, and he reaffirmed that sending prospects up is one of the points of a farm team in Orlando, and he's glad this team is here to do it.

Q: Have you been impacted at all by the drama going on in the Leaf's goaltending system? It seems like -- who knows which goaltender is coming up next?Noreen: I mean, we've certainly been impacted by Rob being gone, and Ryan being gone at times. The one thing I could say is that the communication has been awesome. Kyle has been on the phone, he always lets us known when things are going on. The good thing is we always know, it's never been out of nowhere, unless it came out of nowhere for them. Communication's been awesome both ways. It is what it is. That's what we're here to do, and we're always glad to see those guys go, we're always excited to see them go, and especially when we see them play well like Rob did these last couple of games.

Solar Bears are back in town at the end of the month.

Bonus track: If you fast-forward to the end of TJ Foster's chat, you can listen to his responses to how he likes playing in Orlando, and what it's like to see Christmas without snow.