A bit of a line shuffle paid dividends for the Niagara Predators this weekend.
Acting coach Robert Turnbull teamed captain Mario Zitella with Dante Massi and Emil Eriksson for the first time Friday night. The combination notched six goals and 13 assists for a total of 19 points in a three-day stretch.
Following a weekend with no games on the schedule, the Preds had an opportunity to work some of their newer players into the line-up as well for Friday’s 4-2 home win over the Plattsville Lakers.
Eriksson put the Predators onto the scoreboard early in the first period Friday while parked in front of Lakers goalie Rahul Bola. He received a pass from Zitella and, with his back facing Bola, he finessed the puck with a backhand shot past the helpless netminder.
After Alexander Insulander scored on a penalty shot, Eriksson put Niagara up 3-0 with just over two minutes left in the opening period when he knocked in a rebound after Zitella’s shot was stopped by Bola.
Jesper Eriksson added the fourth Predators goal in the second period.
It was a good all-around performance for Niagara, despite the fact that both Lakers’ goals were the result of misplays by the Predators squad. Plattsville’s Malcolm Campbell scored when the puck bounced over the stick of Predators goalie Oskar Spinnars Nordin as he was trying to pass to one of his defenders while the Lakers
“I was kidding with Oskar that we were going to have to work on his passing before the next game,” Turnbull laughed. “It’s very rare. He made some stops there that I call ‘Oskar stops’. It was just bad luck.”
The team had some obvious success Friday working around the net, with three of the goals coming from close range.
“We’re working on it,” explained Turnbull. “In practice we’ve been working with one or two behind the net and getting someone out front. Most of our goals are pretty goals. We need a few dirty goals. They’re doing a hell of a job in the corners and we’re pretty solid on the back
The Predators split their Saturday-Sunday home-and-home series against the Northumberland Stars, who play out of the Keeler Centre in Colborne.
On the road, Niagara fell 3-1 to the Stars Saturday, despite outshooting them 37-27. After a scoreless first period the Stars scored twice in the second, and the Predators couldn’t recover. Their third came on an empty net with 1:13 remaining in the game.
“They played very tight defensively on us Saturday,” GM Eriksson said. “We knew they were going to be physical. Every time we got the puck we got hit right away.They played hard, but we could have won that game. We hit the crossbar three times and hit the post too. We just couldn’t get the puck in the net.”
It was a different story Sunday afternoon back at the Meridian Credit Union Arena in Virgil.
The Predators exploded with three goals in the first period in a time span of less than three minutes, with all three coming from the Zitella-Massi-Emil Eriksson line.
En route to a 6-0 shellacking of the Stars, the Predators poured in a total of four goals on the power play. Swedish defenceman Pontus Madsen picked up his first goal as a Predator, both Zitella and Emil Eriksson scored twice, and Jesper Eriksson had a single.
“It was an amazing game yesterday, we owned the game,” Johan Eriksson said when it was pointed out that Niagara outshot Northumberland 47-23. “We wanted to show them who was better, and I think we did.”
Both Turnbull and general manager Jesper Eriksson were pleased with the performance of Welland native Brenden Morin, who played his first game with the Preds Friday night. He was solid on the back line and also took a number of runs into the offensive zone to try to set up shots.
The search for a new coach may soon be coming to an end. But both Turnbull and Eriksson seemed to hint that at this stage of the season, with 13 games played, the solution may be to stay status quo, with Turnbull, currently the oldest coach in the Greater Metro Hockey League, behind the bench.
The Predators are back in action Friday, Nov. 19, hosting the 1-and-13 Tottenham Thunder. They travel to Tottenham for the second game of a home-and-home series Saturday night.
The Predators are currently holding a Christmas Drive, collecting winter clothing, food and gifts in support of Gateway Community Church, Community Care of West Niagara and Project Share.
“We’ve been looking at a few options for giving back,” said Eriksson. “That was one of the things we could easily help out with. The guys were on board and we’ve already collected a lot of items. We want to be a community team.”
Items can be dropped off at any of their home games between 5:30 and 9 p.m., as well as during their practices Wednesday and Thursday afternoons between 2 and 5 p.m. Details are on the Niagara Predators Facebook page.