The Niagara Predators began their 2021-2022 Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) season, their first in Virgil, with a win and a loss this past weekend.
More than 100 fans crowded the Meridian Centre Arena for the return of Junior A hockey to Niagara-on-the-Lake Friday night. The crowd cheered as the Predators dropped the Streetsville Flyers 5-3 for their first ever victory in their new home.
Coach Andrew Whalen was happy to see the support from the community.
“I thought we had a great turnout for the first game,” he said Friday, “and I think we put on a show for the fans. Hopefully they got excited and they’re going to keep coming out. I think once we get more of our bodies in the next few weeks this team will be really exciting to watch.”
Mario Zitella showed exactly why Whalen and general manager Johan Eriksson decided to bestow the title of captain upon the 21-year-old Hamilton native, who notched two goals and an assist, and was named first star in the team’s debut game in their new home.
Zitella opened the scoring at 5:15 into the first period with a goal on a breakaway, after receiving an open-ice pass from Dante Massi.
The Preds ended the first period with a 1-0 lead, and a two-man advantage as Streetsville’s Cole Wigle and Connor Cathcart were dinged with penalties near the end of the frame. The home team failed to capitalize on the power play and almost gave up the tying goal. As Wigle stepped onto the ice when his penalty time expired, he was fed a perfect breakaway pass, only to hit the post past Predators goalie Oskar Spinnars Nordin.
Alexander Insulander put the Preds up 2-0 with a backhander off a rebound, with 6:45 remaining in the second. Shortly after that, Predators defenceman Brett Lee was handed a 10-minute misconduct, giving the Flyers an extended power play. In the last minutes of the second, Evan Camara put one past Spinnars Nordin, and the Preds Gino Carter Squires was called for boarding just 40 seconds later.
The Predators began the third period two men short, but managed to kill the penalty successfully. Just seconds later, with both teams at full strength, Hudson Hunich tied it up for the Flyers.
“I think it was just a miscommunication out there,” Whalen said about the goal. “They squeaked one through. I don’t think it was one of their strongest shots, but that’s the game of hockey sometimes. But we came back.”
Indeed, Zitella’s second goal put Niagara up for good. Taking a pass from behind the net off of Reese Bisci, Zitella quickly wristed a shot past Streetsville goalie Tayte Pracek before he had a chance to react.
Massi added a goal of his own, the Predators’ fourth, off a backhander during a scrum in front of Pracek. Emil Eriksson put Niagara up 5-2 with 37 seconds remaining in the game, but just 20 seconds later Streetsville’s Keon Chinganda cut the margin to 5-3, which stood at the end of the game.
At just 5’7”, forward Zitella played far beyond his size on the ice. His speed and willingness to dig in the corners were impressive throughout the game, and he now has the distinction of being the first to score for the Predators in their new home.
“It means a lot,” Zitella told The Local after the game. “I got the puck from Massi, it was a great breakout pass. I’m sure every guy in the room dreamed about scoring the first goal. I just happened to be the guy to get the opportunity to put it in. I’m glad we got off to a good start.”
On the opposite end of the size chart at 6’4” is Swedish native Jesper Eriksson, Zitella’s linemate and the tallest Predator. His assists on both Massi’s and Emil Eriksson’s goals don’t tell his complete story.
“He’s going to be a dangerous player in this league,” Whalen said. “The big body, his speed, the dominance he had when he had the puck on his stick. His time will come.”
Whalen was also impressed with the performance of his Swedish goaltender.
“Oskar is phenomenal, he played a great game. He’s going to be one of the top goalies in the league, and I think tonight that showed a lot. He’s quick, he’s good left-to-right, he’s very hard to score on. He’s a competitor.”
Whalen admitted the Predators played a bit of an undisciplined game at times Friday, taking some unnecessary penalties, including two for unsportsmanlike conduct. As well, Brett Lee’s misconduct resulted in a suspension for the Sunday game in St. George.
“Some of the boys have to get used to the reffing system out there,” Whalen said. “If you open up your mouth, they’re pretty tight in this league. We’re going to address that and hope it gets better for Sunday’s game.”
The Sunday game in St. George was a showdown between the Predators and the Ravens, both teams owned by Robert Turnbull. Proving Whalen’s comment that the refs were going to call players when necessary, a total of five unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were called, two on the Preds and three on the Ravens.
Niagara couldn’t recover from some early scoring by the Ravens and came out on the short side of a 4-2 decision.
Former Pelham Panther Mike Marchesan scored in both the first and second periods, and LJ Beaupre netted the third St. George goal, leaving the Predators to try to claw back in the third.
They made a valiant effort. Emil Eriksson scored on a wrist shot 5:36 into the last period on a 2-on-2 break. Then, Alex Insulander punched a backhand shot behind Ravens goalie Marek Pavlas on a quick breakaway.
The Predators kept the pressure on for the remainder of the game. Jesper Eriksson challenged Pavlis with a great shot on net, and also missed over the crossbar on a slapshot on another drive.
A cross-checking penalty on St. George defender Noah Sigal with 41 seconds left, combined with Spinnars Nordin skating to the bench, gave the Predators a two-man advantage, but a miscue at the Ravens blue line resulted in an empty-net goal for Marcheson, his third of the game, cementing the Ravens’ victory.
“The Ravens are a big, physical team, much bigger than our guys, and we started out slow,” general manager Eriksson says, “but they gained confidence by the third period. The way they played then, that game could have easily ended up 3-3, not 4-2.”
Eriksson is hopeful that by Thursday, Europeans Georgy Kholmovsky, Joakim Sjoblom and Daniil Petrov will have arrived and be cleared to play. There are a couple of local players the team is also hoping to bring into the fold to round out the roster.
The Predators return to action this weekend, beginning a Friday-Saturday home-and-home series against the Tottenham Thunder in Virgil Friday night.
“They are a young team,” Eriksson says of the Thunders. “Even with our short bench, our depth should give us the advantage for both games.”
Game time is 7:30 p.m. at the Meridian Credit Union Arena.