After only six games, Andrew Whalen resigned last week as coach of the Niagara Predators. Team owner Robert Turnbull cited family reasons for the Brantford resident’s decision.
“Andrew has another kid (his fourth) on the way,” Turnbull told The Local after the team’s 3-2 win over Plattsville Friday night. “We practise at 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon. For him to drive from Brantford to here is really hard on the family. It was a difficult decision, a last-minute one, and I wish him the best of luck. He would have liked to have moved down here, but the cost to come down here now is too high for him.”
Turnbull got the call from Whalen Wednesday and said he told the 30-year-old he would always have a place with the Predators.
The owner took Whalen’s spot behind the bench Friday beside assistant general manager Connor Shipton as the team earned its sixth win this season in front of a home crowd of just over 100 fans.
Dawson Walker got the scoring started 14:40 into the first period with his first goal of the season, assisted by Jesper Eriksson and Alexander Insulander.
Plattsville’s Malcolm Campell tied it up early in the second, but just over a minute later Josh Piexoto’s rebound off of Lakers goalie Luca Del Rizzo was knocked into the net by an opportunistic Insulander.
Defenceman Alexander Jarnikov of Brantford, a new addition to the Predators lineup as of Friday night, took a five-minute penalty for boarding late in the second period. Oskar Spinnars Nordin, named the first star of the game, turned away shot after shot by the Lakers as Niagara successfully killed off the shorthanded situation. Insulander had a breakaway during that time but was stopped cold by Del Rizzo.
Predators captain Mario Zitella put the team up 3-1 early in the third off a pass by Emil Eriksson. Jesper Eriksson later hit the crossbar on a drive that would have given the Preds more room to breathe as the game progressed.
Zitella’s goal turned out to be the winner. With 1:30 left in the third period, Del Rizzo skated to the bench, providing the Lakers with an extra attacker. Some sloppy play with the puck in Niagara’s own end resulted in a turnover. Kyle Struth narrowed the margin for the Lakers just before the buzzer sounded to end the game.
Turnbull was happy with the team’s performance, but not so much with the sloppiness at the end of the game.
“One big mistake, we had the chance to move the puck out and we didn’t,” Turnbull lamented. “It’s simple, it’s the little things. The hardest thing to teach the players is where to be without the puck. The next is when you have the puck, you need to get rid of it when their goalie is pulled.”
In Turnbull’s opinion, mistakes like that often come when a team is tired. Even with the addition of Jarnikov, the Predators were still overworked on the ice with Logan Baillie still out and Reese Bisci leaving the game with hip problems in the first period. Dante Massi was also a scratch Friday, needing time off to write his mid-terms at Brock.
Bisci and Massi were both back on the ice Sunday afternoon in St. George, while Turnbull gave up his spot behind the bench to GM Johan Eriksson. As owner of both teams he felt it would be a conflict of interest to coach one of them in a head-to-head contest.
The Ravens took a 2-1 season lead in the standings for what could be called the Turnbull Trophy with their 4-3 victory over the Predators. It was a rough, hard-fought contest with a total of 35 penalty minutes and four lead changes.
Walker started the scoring for the second straight game, this one on a power play and assisted by Insulander and Joshua Davidson. LJ Beaupre evened it up for the Ravens, and Lucas Felicetti put St. George up 2-1 less than a minute into the second period. Insulander and Zitella scored 29 seconds apart to reclaim the lead midway through the second.
With Niagara’s Emil Eriksson in the box for slashing midway through the third, Kyle Munyankuge knotted it up at 3-3 for the Ravens.
Later, with 1:35 left in the game, 6’5” Mike Marchesan, the Ravens’ leading scorer, notched the game-winner. Zitella took a shot at the game-ending buzzer but was wide of the net.
Despite the loss, Preds goalie Oskar Spinnars Nordin once again earned first star honours, stopping 58 of 62 shots by a relentless Ravens team. Spinnars Nordin leads all Greater Metro Hockey League teams in goals against average (1.60), total saves (236), and save percentage (0.967), giving credence to GM Eriksson’s regular assertion that the 19-year-old is the best goaltender in the league.
And Spinnars Nordin won’t be getting a chance to rest anytime soon. Fellow Swedish goalie, 17-year-old William Fagemo, was to head back to his home country following Sunday’s game in St. George.
“He’s one of our youngest guys,” Eriksson said. “He loves the team, he enjoys our staff. It’s just that he’s missing home a lot, missing his younger brothers. I’ve already told him and his dad that I want him back next year.”
Eriksson said a new goalie will be arriving from Quebec this week and he may be signing a third shortly.
“By next week we should almost be a full team,” he promised. “Logan will be back, and we’ll have the new guys too.”
Eriksson and Turnbull both promised to have Whalen’s replacement lined up in time for this coming weekend.
“Johan is doing his due diligence,” Turnbull said. “I have an abundance of people that I know from over the years.”
They’re already talking to a few people, he said, “and we’ll select the one that hopefully will be here long term.”
The 6-and-2 Predators play host to the 6-and-1 North York Renegades Friday night at Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena. Game time is 7:30 p.m. They’ll be in Streetsville Sunday for a 12:30 p.m. start against the 1-and-7 Flyers.