Niagara Predators coach Andrew Whalen is calling them the Swedish Connection.
Forwards Jesper Eriksson, Alexander Insulander and Emil Eriksson accounted for seven of the team’s eight goals in a weekend which saw the Preds win two games, improving their record to 5-and-1. That leaves them alone atop the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League’s nine-team south division.
And you can add goalie Oskar Spinnars Nordin, another Swedish native, into the mix. He was between the pipes for both games, kicking away 44 of 46 shots in Friday’s 3-2 win against St. George, and another 47 for a 5-0 shutout in Streetsville Sunday afternoon. The Predators never trailed either of their opponents over 120 minutes of weekend hockey.
Friday’s victory over the Ravens was a sweet one for Whalen, coming as it did against the team that handed Niagara its only loss thus far two weeks ago.
“We wanted it bad,” Whalen said Friday. “We picked it up in the third period last time against them, so it felt kind of like something was raw from that. So we paid them back for that one. The boys just played their hearts out. We played a team system and it came through.”
Alexander Insulander started the puck rolling, scoring the first goal only 53 seconds into Friday’s game in Virgil. The Ravens took an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty later in the period. While Niagara was pushing on the power play, defenceman Dawson Walker lost the puck in St. George’s end. It was picked up by the Ravens’ Kyle Munyankuge, who scored on a breakaway.
“It was just a mental lapse,” Whalen said about Dawson’s costly turnover. “I kept telling them there’s not a lot of oxygen going around right now, so mistakes are going to happen. It’s what we do to recover from those mistakes.”
Emil Eriksson’s second period goal was part of that recovery. He put away a rebound off Ravens goalie Christian Lynch from a shot by Gino Carter Squire for the Preds’ second of the evening. Ten minutes later Jesper Eriksson put Niagara up 3-1.
“I got a breakout,” Jesper told The Local. “Emil had a good pass. I just went through to the goal and got it top shelf.”
Ravens leading scorer Mike Marchesan narrowed the margin to 3-2 before the end of the second period.
With 20 minutes left to play, Whalen talked in the dressing room about concentrating on teamwork to hold off their much bigger opponents. The Predators played a flawless third, and Spinnars Nordin repeatedly came up with big saves to secure the victory.
“It’s a small group right now, so we’re gelling really well,” Whalen said after the game. “The guys are getting great chemistry, and finding success within the system. When that success comes, they start to do it more. As a team we are coming together, and they are starting to show that on the ice.”
Whalen admitted that there is a bit of a rivalry between his squad and St. George, with both teams owned by Robert Turnbull. Friday’s game was one of the more physical contests the Ravens have played in their six games. The Ravens took six penalties, including three for unsportsmanlike conduct, while the lone Predators penalty was on defenceman Josh Davidson for high sticking.
“I think we want to prove that we’re the stronger team,” Whalen said. “I’m just proud of the guys that their character is showing. They stopped after the first couple of games where maybe they were mouthing back. Now they close those mouths and realize that if the other team is going to get the penalties, we’re going to have chances on the power play.”
On Sunday, Spinnars Nordin picked up his second shutout of the season, this one on the road in Streetsville. The Predators scored once in the first, and four times in the third in the 5-0 victory. Again, they were outshot by the Flyers, 47-39.
Jesper Eriksson led the way with two goals and one assist. Emil Eriksson added a goal and two assists, while Alex Insulander and captain Mario Zitella each had a goal and an assist.
The Predators continued to play both games with only 12 skaters, including just three defensemen. Defender Logan Baillie continues to sit with a knee injury suffered two weeks ago.
General manager Johan Eriksson says help on the blue line is coming this week with the arrival of Pontus Madsen, another Swedish player.
‘He’s played high level hockey in Sweden,” Eriksson said. “He’s a big, strong player, who can handle all aspects of the game. Last year he had nine goals in 21 games as a defenceman. Our young defensive core has done an amazing job, but we really need to bring in someone who can help lead the way. Adding a guy like Pontus will only make us better.”
Eriksson said Madsen will arrive in time to be available for this Friday’s home game. He is also close to signing two more local players to join the Predators.
Whalen was asked whether or not the addition of the new players will be a popular move amongst the 14 who have worked so hard over the first six games.
“I was joking that the guys are going to be complaining that they’re not getting as much ice time when they come,” Whalen said. “But we’ll continue to gel well. No one takes long shifts. We roll our lines pretty fast. Everybody gets ice time. I think once they get that balance they’ll be pretty good. They’ll be fresh every shift and we’re going to be able to produce more offence.”
This Friday, Oct. 22 the Predators play host to the 3-and-2 Plattsville Lakers at 7:30 p.m. They’ll be back in St. George Sunday to meet the Ravens for the third time this season. That game will be streamed starting at 3 p.m. on GMHL.tv.