ORLANDO, FL - It was easy to tell the best player on the ice Thursday evening at the Amway Center as the hosting Orlando Solar Bears peppered the Atlanta Gladiators. It was the long-haired goalie, Sean Bonar that stepped up to carry Atlanta to an overtime point before falling 3-2 to the second-place squad from Central Florida.
Despite the playoff pressure falling square on the shoulders of the Gladiators, it was the hosts that brought to heat early and often. Bonar was under siege in net by Orlando's offense despite their secured position in the postseason. True to form, the anchor in net battled for Atlanta and kept the affair scoreless before the Atlanta offense jumped into gear.
It started on the first power play opportunity of the night for the visitors when Joel Messner sent a shot intentionally wide of the Orlando net. The carom found Justin MacDonald on the edge of Connor Ingram's goal crease. He dished the puck to Nolan LaPorte in front and the Chicago, IL product buried the chance to grab the early lead and tally a goal in his fourth straight game.
In the face of the heavy offensive pressure from Orlando, the visiting Gladiators continued to put pucks on net. A shot from Jake Flegel flew well wide of the net but rebounded perfectly to Brett McKenzie on the opposite side. Ingram's diving attempt to stop Flegel's shot left him sprawling to recover on the second chance. McKenzie netted his 15th goal of the year into an open cage with 4:49 to play in the opening frame.
The Gladiators earned another golden chance in the second period when Orlando committed two penalties within a :52-second span. The 1:08 of 5-on-3 power play time for Atlanta seemed like a great chance to finish the game, but the Solar Bears showed why they hold the second position in the division and one of best penalty kills in the ECHL. Despite the swing of momentum from the big penalty kill, Orlando still failed to solve Bonar.
It took a man-advantage of their own to break the scoreless streak, called after a questionable call involving Solar Bear defenseman Mike Monfredo. The power play saw the aforementioned Monfredo and Alexei Lipanov finding Chris LeBlanc for the goal that cut the lead in half with 1:44 remaining in the second period. The Solar Bears rolled that momentum into a game-tying tally just two minutes into the third period on a shot by Alexander Kuqali.
It was the hero of the night Bonar making clutch saves down the stretch all night and earning Atlanta a point with the game tied at two after sixty minutes. Like most great athletes do, he rose to the occasion in the biggest moments. Despite standing on his head for most of the contest, it was a LeBlanc finding Colby McAuley for the overtime winner that snuck by the Atlanta netminder for the win.
The overtime point was critical, as Atlanta now leads South Carolina for the final playoff position by one point. The Gladiators conclude the regular season with two contests against those Stingrays, beginning Saturday night in North Charleston. A regulation win can clinch a postseason berth for Atlanta. The Gladiators return to the Infinite Energy Arena for the final time in the regular season on Sunday at 3:05 PM. Get your tickets atatlantagladiators.com today!