JACKSONVILLE, FLA – The Orlando Solar Bears eliminated the Jacksonville Icemen from their battle for the final playoff spot in the ECHL Eastern Conference on Tuesday night. Three days later, the Icemen had an opportunity to retaliate by knocking out their Sunshine State rival and allowing the South Carolina Stingrays to move into the postseason. When the ice cubes finally settled in the Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena, two teams were happy with the result – and none were called Solar Bears.
Supported by an outstanding performance of 38 saves by goalkeeper Kyle Keyser and multi-point nights by Erik Bradford (goal, 2 assists), Mike Szmatula (goal, assist), Abbott Girduckis (goal, assist) and Jake Elmer (2 assists) , Jacksonville (34-29-3-4) defeated Orlando (36-28-6-1) with a 5-1 final in front of an announced crowd of 5,236. The win assured the Icemen that they were the kings of Florida as they won the season streak against both the Solar Bears and the Florida Everblades.
Joe Garreffa scored the only goal for Orlando in the penultimate game of the 2020/21 season, a season never seen before. Goalie Clint Windsor had an atypical off-night for the second day in a row and made 19 saves with 23 shots in 42:44 playing time before he was replaced by Michael Lackey after Jacksonville’s fourth goal of the competition.
It was a bitter pill for the Solar Bears, who had their playoff fate in their own hands in the decisive game against South Carolina on Thursday. In two consecutive elimination round competitions, Orlando was beaten 11-3, giving up unanswered runs from six by the Stingrays and four by the Icemen. Instead of having another chance on the last day of the regular season, Orlando and his fans wonder how it came about that the Solar Bears looked in from the outside.
The beginning was good, filled with speed, shots on goal and great goalkeepers. Fans got into the game early when Orlando’s Dmitry Semykin and Jacksonville’s Jacob Friend dropped their gloves at 4:03 am and competed against each other in a very entertaining match at Center Ice. From then on, it was the goalkeepers Keyser and Windsor who put on a parade after parade that kept the scoreboard clean. When the buzzer sounded at the end of the season, there were still no goals on the board.
The goalless draw lasted a full 14 seconds to reach the mid-frame. With 17 seconds of power play time carried over from the first, the Icemen got to work and it quickly paid off. Elmer made the key game, a pass from under the goal as to the top of the goal area where Bradford got it, and with no Orlando defender to challenge him, he brought Windsor to his knees and pegged the great goalkeeper for his 11th goal of the season. Less than two minutes later, the lead doubled when Szmatula brought the puck into the face-up circle to Windsor’s left and fired the top corner on the opposite side. The puck whizzed past the goalkeeper of the Solar Bears for Szmatula’s 22nd goal to make it 2-0 and there were barely 18 minutes left.
It became almost a three-goal game not long after when Windsor was besieged. He was forced to make high quality stops in a row and appeared injured, but was swept on between the pipes. Windsor was also a big part of killing a five-on-three Jacksonville man that lasted 1:43 in the game.
Keyser was also clutched at the other end of the ice. He continued to keep his scorers’ list clean, facing four Solar Bears shots in 35 seconds at the end of another Orlando man’s advantage. At the end of two periods, Keyser was a perfect 25v25 and the Icemen were leading 2-0 for the third time.
At the start of the final frame, the Icemen made another two-goal splurge to get the game out of reach. A 23-second penalty from the Solar Bears put Jacksonville on the power play and was expensive for the guests. A turnover led to a two-for-nothing slump directly in the slot. Szmatula pulled Windsor to his side of the ice before dropping a diagonal pass on Girduckis, who tore him home before the goalkeeper made his 12. Then, less than a minute later, Bradford sent a pass off the half-boards to the slot where Ara Nazarian stuck out his stick and diverted the feed for Nazarian’s 25th to the back of the cage. At the time, Jacksonville had a commanding 4-0 lead and everyone looked hopeless for the Solar Bears. The push marked the end of the night for Windsor, who was replaced by Lackey for the second straight year.
Garreffa tried to excite his team by scoring his 13th goal of the year with a feed from JJ Piccinich. With a chance to find his seat, Garreffa stepped aside wearing tall gloves to break Keyser’s offer for a shutout.
The 4-1 lead in Jacksonville lasted until just halfway through the period. It came when Brenden Miller got up again at the end of a penalty shoot-out, after initially being knocked on his knees, and the game broke in.
From then on, Keyser and his friends had things under control. Orlando made only two shots on the net in the last 9:18 of the frame as Jacksonville completed his task of demanding revenge on the Solar Bears.
Both teams end their season on Saturday. Orlando will face the Florida Everblades at the Amway Center at 7 p.m., while Jacksonville will travel to North Charleston to meet South Carolina at 6:05 p.m.
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