ORLANDO, FLA – After a fairly long and tiring weekend of short squads and brave performances, the Orlando Solar Bears returned to the Amway Center for their final game before the ECHL Christmas break. It was a combined night of celebration when the Solar Bears first donned their festive ugly sweater jerseys and hosted their annual teddy bear litter for children’s charities in central Florida.
While Luke Boka sparked a record-breaking rain of cloth with an early goal, the main goal to get two points turned into a sock full of coal in the end.
Boka’s 2:10 result in the first period turned into 8,728 furry gifts for kids, one of the few bright spots when the Atlanta Gladiators (12-11-2-0) scored four unanswered goals en route to a 5-3 Victory over the Solar Bears (13-11-1-0) in front of an announced crowd of 7,108. The guests were led by Michael Pelech, who scored two goals and an assist, and captain Derek Nesbitt, who scored two goals and an assist in his 999.
Kyle Topping (goal, assist) and Aaron Luchuk (goal, 2 assists) were the other goalscorers for Orlando, whose winning streak was halted after two games. Andrew McLean extended his points streak to three games (1 goal, 4 assists) with two helpers.
The big news before the game was the roster changes for Head Coach and General Manager Drake Berehowsky between the win on Sunday in Tulsa and the competition on Tuesday. It was announced on Monday that fan-favorite striker Hunter Fejes had returned from his game in Europe and signed on the dotted line. Then, hours before Game 25 of the 2021-22 season dropped the puck, steadfast defender Nolan Valleau was signed along with rookie Owen Robinson.
While Valleau was put on reserve and not dressed, Fejes had a much stranger evening. When he arrived at City Beautiful, he was missing something: his gear. Expecting the equipment to arrive at some point, Berehowsky put Fejes on the deployment card. The equipment reached the Amway so Fejes could skate the last shift of the second section and make regular turns during the last frame.
In anticipation of the first Solar Bears score that evening, the crowd was already excited and stocked with animals of all kinds, colors and sizes. Little did they know the opportunity to celebrate the annual tradition – which was canceled last year due to COVID-19 – would come before some had settled in their seats for the night.
Atlanta-based Pelech was marked for a 1:10 penalty in the first frame, giving Orlando an early power play. A minute later, the Solar Bears took advantage. Brayden Barker worked the puck off the boards in the Atlanta defensive zone back to Topping, who was feeding McLean at the time. McLean saw Luchuk in his familiar power play spot – the target circle opposite. Luchuk hammered a shot that Gladiator goalkeeper Tyler Parks stopped. The rebound went straight to Boka, who attempted a cross-ice pass with his backhand on Barker. It never got there when he hit an Atlanta defender’s skate and into the net for Boka’s seventh of the season and the furry start.
The rest of the opening time belonged to Atlanta. On the way to a 22-shot verse, the Gladiators put three past Solar Bears netminder Zach Emond. At 8:59 a.m., Pelech made a push into the Orlando end. He and Cody Sylvester ran a crossover in which Pelech dropped a pass and headed for the archway. Sylvester got within a few yards of the blue color before covering a pass on Pelech that was open between two defenders. Pelech did it for the fifth time this year.
A little over five minutes later, Pelech was back for his second of the night. Sylvester earned his second assist of the verse when he slammed a shot into the net that Emond blocked. The rebound slid to the top of the archway, where Pelech again had enough space between the defenders to wedge the puck between the goalkeeper’s legs for his sixth of the 2021/22 season. It followed less than a minute later when Elijah Vilio took a pass out of his defensive zone and the ice shot up. He eventually turned a Solar Bears defender around the corner, but the puck was struck by his stick blade. Luckily for Vilio, the biscuit followed him over the kink, where he gathered again and shoveled a backhand into the cage for his third of the season and a 3-1 gladiator lead at one.
Orlando must have felt bitten by a snake when Luchuk clinked the bar. Many in the building thought it had crossed the finish line, but after a quick check, the call came out without a goal. The frustration doubled just a few minutes later when Pelech dumped in first on the puck and placed a backhand pass into the slot, where Nesbitt pulled him to his sixth and 4-1 Atlanta lead over Emond.
Nesbitt’s score seemed to grab the attention of the Solar Bears and the home team roared back. Orlando answered forty seconds after Nesbitt’s count. After a faceoff win in Topping’s offensive zone, the puck moved to Luchuk, who rolled to the slot and pushed the puck towards the net. It found Kevin Lohan’s cane and shoveled it on parks. Parks got almost everything, but it dribbled to the right post where Topping rammed it for his second goal of the season.
When they sensed a comeback, the fans got loud and the Solar Bears reacted. Topping and Jake Transit led an ice cream rush-up and played a game of give-and-go. As Transit drove into the allusion circle on the other side, Transit was feeding Topping who had gone to the end boards. Luchuk sat in the low slot where Topping hit him with a perfect pass and Luchuk did the rest, beating Parks for 12th place to reduce the gap to 4-3.
Unfortunately, it was as close as Orlando could get. Although the Solar Bears placed four shots at Parks (27 saves) in the first 6:21 of the third period, they were unlucky to equalize. They only recorded two shots on the net in the last 13:39 of the frame. Luke Nogard ended the night with an empty net gate for his third of the year, 36.8 seconds back to finish.
Orlando’s Emond ended the night with 35 saves from 39 shots in Atlanta when he was defeated.
The Solar Bears will return to the Amway Center after hiatus on Sunday, December 26th, to battle the Florida Everblades, which will make their first appearance at City Beautiful this season, at 7pm.
Notes: The last shots were 40-30 in favor of Atlanta … The Gladiators went 0-on-3 in power play while the Solar Bears had a 1-on-3 advantage with the man … The loss was only Orlando’s second Defeat of the year on the home ice … Boka’s teddy bear goal was the second fastest in the history of the Orlando franchise. Ben Rosen set the tone with 1:03 in the first half of the game on December 11, 2014 against Elmira … The previous high for teddy bears came on December 7, 2019, when Tayler Thompson’s goal brought 8,454 cuddly toys onto the ice … Luchuk’s three points gave him his seventh multi-point game of the season … Transit extended its points streak to three games (2 goals, 1 assist). He has reached a point in all three of his pro games since joining the Solar Bears last week.
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