ESTERO, FLA – A week or so ago when the Orlando Solar Bears were in the throws of severe roster issues, the fans got very excited when the team announced the return of forward Hunter Fejes from Europe. They remembered his time in the City Beautiful and the way he played in every situation imaginable.

It took a couple of games but on Wednesday night at Hertz Arena, the “old” Hunter Fejes – the one the fans wanted to see – finally arrived.

Fejes score a pair of scintillating short handed goals and added an assist as Orlando (14-12-1-0) hung on for a heart-stopping 4-3 victory over the Florida Everblades (14-8-2-3) in front of a holiday mid-week crowd of 6,988. Rookie Owen Robinson helped out with his first professional goal and Braydon Barker chipped in with his third goal of the season while Tristin Langan added two assists to the win.

Fejes wasn’t the only headline in the victory. Goalie Brad Barone, starting for the first time since December 11th due to COVID-19 issues, proved he was back in tip top shape by stopping 34 of 37 Everblades shots, including 17 of 18 in a furious comeback attempt by Florida during the third period.

Most of the Solar Bears that had been put on the Commissioner’s Exempt list (COVID-related) were back available before the team headed southwest to Estero but there was still one roster issue: the flood of players either being recalled or players being given professional tryout contracts (PTOs) by AHL teams being ravaged by emergency callups by their NHL affiliates to taxi squads. The latter situation saw Orlando’s two top scorers – forward Aaron Luchuk and defenseman Michael Brodzinski – head north to join the Hartford Wolfpack (as of Wednesday morning, nearly four dozen players had been plucked since Monday and that number grew steadily all afternoon).

Not having the big guns available against their arch-rival, who had beaten Orlando 5-0 on Sunday in O-Town, looked like it could be a problem for the visiting Solar Bears. The Everblades looked to be starting a repeat performance when Joe Pendenza picked up his 10th goal of the season (and first of two in the contest) during an early power play at 1:21 of the first frame. Ben Masella started the sequence with a shot from the point that Barone knocked down. The rebound kicked to his right where Nathan Perkovich got control and swept a pass into the crease. The puck slid over to the far post where Pendenza put it into the open side of the net for the early lead.

When a too many men on the ice penalty was whistled on Orlando 91 seconds later, it appeared like trouble was brewing for the visitors. That was when Langan and Fejes stepped in. Langan hounded a Florida pointman, eventually blocking an attempted shot from just inside the Solar Bears defensive zone. Langan jumped on the loose puck and hit Fejes in the neutral zone with a perfect stretch pass. Fejes turned on the jets for a clean breakaway and beat Everblades goalie Cam Johnson for his first goal since returning and his sixth career short-handed tally in an Orlando jersey.

Florida regained the lead at the 6:55 mark of the second period during a short stretch of four-on-four action. Masella stole the puck and began skating hard looking for a breakaway chance. Fejes tried to run Masella down but the crafty defenseman pulled a stop cut and watched Fejes go sailing by before ripping a shot over Barone’s right shoulder for his third of the 2021-22 campaign.

The 2-1 Everblades lead held until the final five minutes of the stanza when Orlando found its scoring skates again. At 15:37, Langan picked up his second primary assist of the game, sending a cross-ice pass from the near side wing to the top of the crease. Barker was going hard toward the front of the cage and arrived in time to jam the puck past Johnson, evening the score at two.

Three minutes and three seconds later, the Solar Bears took the lead for good. Fejes and Robinson busted into the Florida end on a two-on-one break. Fejes waited before crossing a pass to Robinson at the top of the crease. Robinson got his stick blade on the puck,sending it into the blue paint where it somehow squeaked past Johnson and across the goal line for the rookie’s frist tally in a pro contest. It gave Orlando a 3-2 lead that held going into the second intermission.

Five minutes into the third, the Solar Bears were on their second penalty kill cause by a too many men on the ice call. Once again Fejes showed why the fans had taken to calling him “freaky fast Fejes” when he left three Everblades in his wake before firing a short side shot into the cage for his second goal and second shorty of the night to put his team up by two at 4-2.

From that point on, Barone found himself under seige as the Everblades opened their high-powered offense up. A subsequent Florida penalty kill shortly after Fejes’ score saw the home team outshoot the Solar Bears by a count of 3-to-1 and the pressure never stopped. The Everblades ran up a 15-4 shots advantage in a span of 11:33 before they finally put a third goal past Barone. It came at 17:59 when with Johnson (15 saves) pulled for an extra attacker, captain John McCarron fired a shot at the net. Barone made the save but Pendenza was there to get to the rebound. Barone dove to deny Pendenza’s first try but he deposited his own rebound into the back of the net for his second of the game and 11th of the season.

Try as they might, Florida couldn’t find the game-tying tally, logging just one shot in the final two minutes and having to watch as the Solar Bears celebrated another gutsy performance.

Orlando gets back on the ice Friday afternoon at 12 noon when the South Carolina Stingrays head into the Amway Center for a New Year’s Eve special while Florida heads north to Duluth, GA for a three game set with the Atlanta Gladiators.

Notes: Final shots were 37-19 in favor of Florida including an 18-9 advantage in the third period… The Solar Bears went 0-for-5 on the power play while the Everblades went 1-for-4… Fejes’ two short-handed goals put him at seven in his Solar Bears career, putting him atop the franchise all-time list ahead of Chris LeBlanc and Trevor Olson. He also joined Alexander Kuqali (Feb. 20, 2020 vs.Norfolk) and Ryan Reaves (Dec. 28, 2012 vs. Florida) as just the third ECHL Solar Bear to score a pair of shorties in a regular season game… Langan’s assist on Fejes’ first goal was his seventh career short-handed helper, moving him past LeBlanc for the most in franchise history.

Contact the author at don.money@prohockeynews.com

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