Playoff push, and pushing back: the Gladiators' 3-2 win keeps them in the playoff hunt
Fridays game (February 21, 2020) between the Orlando Solar Bears (24-22-5-1, 54 points) and the Atlanta Gladiators (22-28-1-1, 46 points) has playoff implications for both division (South Division/Eastern Conference) rivals and affiliates of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins (respectively).
Fighting for playoff position in the Eastern Conference (South Division), the Solar Bears are currently in 3rd place in the division, but only have a 2 point lead over the 4th place Greenville Swamp Rabbits. While the Gladiators are on the outside looking in (6 points out of a playoff spot) and coming off an overtime win (5-4) over Adirondack in their previous game (on February 18th), the team is looking forward to making a run to remain in the hunt.
With a 2-4 record in their previous games against Orlando, Atlanta looks to Samuel Asselin (23 goals/20 assists/43 points), Eric Neiley (15 goals/28 assists/43 points), Tommy Marchin (17 goals/21 assists/38 points), and team captain Derek Nesbitt (13 goals/22 assists/35 points) to pace their offense. The Solar Bears feature 5 players with at least 32 points, including (but not limited to) co-leading scorers Tristin Langan (12 goals/21 assists/33 points), Michael Brodzinski (7 goals/26 assists/33 points), and Taylor Cammarata (12 goals/21 assists/33 points) in this key game for both teams.
Pre-game (Orlando Solar Bears vs Atlanta Gladiators - interview with Eric Neiley)
Forward Eric Neiley joins us prior to tonight's 7:35pm puck drop. He shares insight on his individual growth, the team's chemistry, and other key factors as the team makes a push for the playoffs. Consistent play and minimizing mistakes is part of the larger focus as the team has its sights set on a return to the post-season.
In-game (Orlando Solar Bears vs Atlanta Gladiators)
In the 1st period, both teams struggle to get into a rhythm, other than a brief scrap at the 6:05 mark. The Solar Bears take a 1-0 lead via an unassisted goal by Tyler Byrd (14:07 mark, his 5th goal of the year).
At the 15;06 mark, the Glads earn their first power play opportunity and cash in at the just 22 seconds later thanks to Scott Conway's 14th goal of the season (assisted by Luke Nogard, his 7th of the year), tying the game (1-1). Later in the period (16:50 mark), the Glads are back on the power play, but the Solar Bears' penalty killing holds off any scoring efforts (as Atlanta has a 15-8 shots on goal advantage over Orlando).
A tripping penalty at the 1:36 mark of the 2nd period gives the Solar Bears their first power play chance of the game. After killing the penalty, the Glads take a 2-1 lead at the 4:32 mark as Sam Asselin notches his team-leading 24th goal of the season, with assists by Scott Conway (his 14th of the season) and Chris Forney (his 5th of the season). Not too long afterward, a Glads' penalty gives the Solar Bears their second power play of the game, but they respond with a penalty kill.
At the 12:31 mark, the Glads' pressure creates a scoring opportunity, and despite Clint Windsor's physical play (including a few pushes and swings at players in the crease), a goal by Neiley (his 16th of the season), complimented by assists from Nogard (his 8th) and Logan Nelson (his 29th) puts the Glads ahead 3-1. However, after the goal, both teams get into a fracas and as a result, Neiley is tossed out of the game (10 minute game misconduct); with the intensity increasing, multiple penalties are administered to both teams, including the Glads' Josh Thrower for fighting.
Atlanta focuses on putting Orlando away in the 3rd period (and building off their 38-15 edge with shots on goal), as they generate a power play opportunity at the 3:45 mark. The Solar Bears respond with a penalty kill as they try to get back into the game and they finally snap the Glads' 3 unanswered goals with one of their own at the 8:26 mark. Alexander Kuqali's 2nd goal of the season (along with Bird's 6th assist and Zane Schartz's 2nd assist of the year) cuts the Atlanta lead to 3-2.
The 14:20 mark of the period is another possible swing as the Solar Bears are on the power play, but the Gladiators respond with another penalty kill.
At the 18:35 mark, Orlando pulls their goalie for an extra skater. Solid defense combined with gritty play allows the Glads to hold on for a 3-2 win and inch closer to a playoff spot.
Post-game (Orlando Solar Bears vs Atlanta Gladiators)
Scott Conway (1 goal and 1 assist) is one of the players of thegainst the game who speaks with us after the team's 3-2 victory. He notes how the team's execution, including their power play and penalty killing, are among the reasons for the team's key division win.
The team's next home game is February 23, 2020 at 2:05pm against the Greenville Swamp Rabbits (who currently hold the 4th playoff spot in the division).
Note: all photography is done by the writer (Andrew Snorton).