The Niagara Predators exploded for 19 goals over two games last weekend against the last place Tottenham Thunder, with an 11-7 Friday night home victory followed by an 8-1 win on the road.
Jesper Eriksson led the way in both games, recording a hat trick Friday night, the Greater Metro Hockey League franchise’s first since it moved from Toronto, and following that up with the second in Saturday’s game. The six goals vaulted the 20-year-old Swede past captain Mario Zitella and Alexander Insulander as the Preds’ leading goal-scorer.
“He is starting to find his way in the offensive zone over here in North America,” general manager Johan Eriksson said of the 6’4” forward. “He’s used to far bigger ice, but he’s starting to pick that up and play a bit of an easier game, and to use his teammates more.”
Johan lauded Jesper for his hockey smarts as well. “Every decision he makes out there these days is just the right one. To have a player like that right now is huge for us. And he plays so well with Insulander too.”
Nathan Fehr, Henry-Pierre Jayet, Noah Caperchione, Maxwell Bredin and new Russian import Georgy Kholmovsky all picked up their first goals as Predators Friday in a game that Niagara wasn’t able to put away until the third period.
After Eriksson’s first goal just over a minute into the opening period, the Thunder tied the game on the power play with Niagara’s Josh Davidson sitting in the box. Niagara jumped out to a 3-1 lead only to see that erased by the end of the first.
In the second period, the Thunder took their first lead of the game, battling back to go up 6-5 until Jayet tied it up with 11 seconds left. Kholmovsky put the Predators up 7-6 in the third, but four minutes later Alexis Hebert tied it up for Tottenham. Then Niagara peppered Thunder goalie Mack Maracle with a four-goal run over the final 10 minutes to end the game.
Predators number one goaltender Oskar Spinnars Nordin sat out both games this weekend, allowing Iain Riordan to see his first action in the crease Friday. He was later pulled in favour of Justin Appleton, also making his on-ice debut for Niagara, before returning to start the third period.
Niagara outshot Tottenham 53-20 Friday, but Eriksson would not lay blame on his goaltending corps for allowing the most goals in a single game yet this season.
“The team played a selfish game,” said the general manager. “They knew we were playing the lowest team in the standings. They were mainly thinking ‘how many goals am I going to score?’ and played one-on-one instead of using their teammates. That doesn’t work, and it was a big issue.”
“It was probably the worst game we played all season,” he lamented. “Iain had no help on defence, no help from forwards, there were turnovers and people misplaced. It was bad altogether. It was 100 per cent a bad team effort defensively. We should have won 11-1.”
Riordan bounced back Saturday in Tottenham, kicking away 31 shots in the 8-1 victory.
Goals by Zitella, Jesper Eriksson and two from Caperchione gave the Predators a 4-0 lead by the middle of the second period. Again, Niagara took advantage of a tired Tottenham squad in the third. Insulander and Kholmovsky each scored and Eriksson completed his second hat trick in two days to end the game.
“We wanted to show who was the boss Saturday,” Johan Eriksson said. “We owned the game from start to finish. We went back to basics and played a more easy kind of game. It was also the first game we actually rolled four lines, and we didn’t play our first two lines as hard, giving our third and fourth lines more time.”
Eriksson gave credit to forward Dante Massi, the team’s scoring leader and playmaker with four goals and 24 assists, for being the best player in both games.
“Dante doesn’t take a shift off,” Eriksson marvelled. “He’s just going all the time. It doesn’t matter how hard they play on him, he still somehow gets the puck out of close contact every time. I don’t even understand how he’s doing it. He’s a dream to have.”
The GM is elated to finally have Russian Georgy Kholmovsky in Niagara. His immigration and insurance issues were solved last week, and he joined the team 13 games into the season. The 6’3” defenceman brings some much-needed size and strength to the Predators’ blue line.
“He is so, so smart,” Eriksson said. “And a good skater. Most of the guys on the team have already come to ask me if they can play with him. He’s young, too, at 17. He was probably our best forward this weekend, one of two players on Friday, along with Brett Lee, who actually played two-way hockey.”
The Predators are back in action Friday night at the Meridian Credit Union Arena, playing host to the St. George Ravens. Niagara currently holds a four-point advantage over St. George in the GMHL’s South Division standings, sitting in third place. They will be trying to even up the season series against their fellow Robert Turnbull-owned team, which sits at 2-1 in the Ravens’ favour.
“Every single guy wants to win against St. George,” said Eriksson. “They’re our rivals. We play far better against better teams, where we actually get to play more hockey.“
That game will be followed with a trip to the Tavistock and District Recreation Centre to meet the fifth-place Plattsville Lakers.
Game time Friday is 7:30 pm, and fans are reminded to bring gently used winter clothing, food items, and gift items for teenagers to support the Predators’ Christmas drive in support of Gateway Community Church, Community Care of West Niagara and Project Share. Details of the drive can be found on the Predators’ Facebook page.