ESTERO, Fla. — Michael Downing picked a good time for his first goal of the season.
With the Florida Everblades and Orlando Solar Bears tied at two with 1:58 left in overtime, Downing ripped a shot from the slot past Orlando netminder Clint Windsor to send the ‘Blades to a 3-2 win in the final regular-season meeting with their in-state rivals on Friday night at Hertz Arena.
In the third straight meeting between the two teams to require overtime or a shootout, Florida (49-16-5-1, 104 pts.) scored the final three goals of the game to overcome a two-goal deficit and split the 12-game season series with Orlando (40-25-5-1, 86 pts.).
Though the ‘Blades had a strong effort on special teams, converting twice on five power plays and going 5-for-5 on the penalty kill, it was Orlando that struck first thanks to a shorthanded goal. Former Everblades forward Mathieu Foget raced to a loose puck in the high slot of the Florida offensive zone and went to his backhand to beat the blocker of Everblades goaltender Jeremy Helvig on the ensuing breakaway to give the Solar Bears the lead 4:17 into the opening frame.
The Solar Bears added to their advantage with nine minutes, 21 seconds gone in the first. Solar Bears captain Mike Monfredo lobbed a shot through traffic, and the puck passed four players on the way to the net before getting by Helvig, who never saw it through the host of bodies in front.
A penalty by former ‘Blades defenseman Akim Aliu helped Florida whittle into the deficit before the end of the first period. Red-hot rookie Alex Tonge scored on the power play with 2:41 left in the first thanks to a crisp, one-time set up from Sam Warning. The pairing of Warning and Tonge has been deadly of late, combining for seven goals and two assists in the last three games.
Florida then drew even in the first five minutes of the second period with Blake Winiecki’s 25th goal of the season. A two-on-one rush with Justin Auger and Alex Tonge started the game-tying sequence. Auger’s initial shot kicked off the end boards and back into the slot, where Tonge slapped a second shot on goal. Windsor stopped that chance, but Winiecki found the rebound at the side of the net and buried it.
The two teams went scoreless through the next 36:16 to end regulation and headed to overtime for the sixth time this year, setting the stage for Downing’s heroics.
Helvig picked up his 27th win of the year, making 22 saves on 24 shots to set the franchise record for most wins by a rookie netminder.
Florida closes out the regular season with a Saturday night matchup against the Jacksonville Icemen. Game time is set for 7 p.m.
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