With their biggest test since Nov. 13 coming up against the second-place Renegades in North York this Sunday afternoon, the Niagara Predators must be careful to not let their 10-game Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) winning streak get to their heads.
That could have been what happened last Friday night when the short-staffed Windsor Aces came to town and pushed the Preds to squeak out an 11-8 victory.
Niagara jumped out to a 3-0 lead Friday, with goals by Alexander Insulander, Brenden Morin and Georgy Kholmovsky, and it seemed it would be a repeat of the previous Friday’s 10-3 thumping of the same team.
The second period was a completely different story, though. With Niagara’s Brett Lee in the penalty box, Windsor’s Evan Ferguson notched an unassisted power play marker 44 seconds in. Dante Massi replied for the Predators just 39 seconds later to maintain the three-goal margin.
From there, it was back and forth for the remainder of the period. Windsor’s Kory Silverio, the GMHL’s top sniper, collected two more unassisted goals, then Jesper Eriksson replied for Niagara. That was followed by another Aces goal, then Insulander’s second of the night, but Evan Ferguson kept pace for the Aces, making it 6-5 heading into the second intermission.
It was more of the same for the third period, as the Predators left the neutral zone wide open during their attack, leaving the Aces to win the transition game. Windsor capitalized on Niagara’s repeated mistakes, tying it up at 8-8 midway through the final frame.
“When they (Windsor) were playing stretch hockey, where were our guys?” head coach Robert Turnbull asked after the game. “They were all down in the Windsor end. Where were they when they were breaking out wide-to-wide stretch? We had three skaters on one side of the ice. No one took the wide man.”
“The kids got their heads down, lost their confidence,” Turnbull continued. “Between the second and third periods a few things were said. They did a better job of taking their man and we got a bit better goaltending in the third period to win the game.”
Luckily, the Predators closed out the game with goals by Pontus Madsen, a second by Brenden Morin, and Insulander’s third of the evening to come away with the victory, their ninth straight.
“I’m happy with the win,” Turnbull concluded. “But they beat us to the puck, they beat us to the man, and they beat us to the net. They outplayed us. A few of our guys did not play up to their expected level, and a few guys sat because of that.”
To field a minimum-roster squad of 12 players, Windsor borrowed 18-year-old forwards Jacob Campbell and Ryan Hanson from the Plattsville Lakers. It’s not something that Turnbull welcomes, but it happens in the GMHL from time to time.
“When your team has a lot of injuries or is short players, or there are exams going on, you still have to roster a 12-man team,” he explained. “I thought they were bringing one up. It’s to help the league. I’m okay with it, but I just have to make sure that it’s being exercised properly.”
General Manager Jesper Eriksson said assistant coach Connor Shipton ripped into the team following the embarrassing showing in front of a home crowd. It might have been exactly what they needed heading into Sunday afternoon’s road game against the Flyers in Streetsville.
“He really lost it on them in the locker room,” Eriksson told The Local. “On Sunday, they came to play. We were again meeting a team that was near the bottom of the standings, but we wanted to see our guys not just taking points, but actually playing the game the right way. And we did, from start to finish.”
Insulander added two more goals Sunday in an 8-2 decision in favour of the Predators. Madsen, Kholmovsky and Jesper Eriksson added singles, as did assistant captain Dante Massi and his younger brother Alessandro. Noah Caperchione, returning to the ice after a week off with a knee injury, scored the eighth Niagara goal in a game that saw the Predators outshoot the Flyers 45-21.
“We really played the puck around and tried a few different lines,” Johan Eriksson said. “And Nathan Fehr was amazing. He had about six big, big hits. He was just going in and dominating. He’s one of the youngest guys we have, but by far he’s the most physical.”
Eriksson admits that sometimes the team has a bad habit of playing down to their competition.
“When we face a team that is low in the standings, some of the boys remember how many goals we scored the last time, and aim to score their own personal hat trick. When you go into a game thinking that way, it’s not going to end well. The only thing to be happy about Friday’s game was getting the two points. We closed the gap Sunday, but we have to make sure we figure it out before the playoffs.”
They’ll have a chance to improve on the terrible performance against Windsor this Friday, Dec. 17, as the Aces return to town. But the temptation might be for the third-place Predators to look ahead to their Sunday afternoon contest in North York, their last game of the 2021 calendar year.
“We feel that if we are just up to standard with ourselves, we can beat anyone,” Eriksson said. “We’re a different team over the last month. We’ve probably added about nine players since then. We had a really short bench when we lost to St. George and North York.”
Niagara last faced the Renegades on Oct. 29, losing 5-2 at Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena. Santino Foti scored four of his 37 goals, second highest in the league, that night.
“They had four even lines that night, and we only played with two,” recalls Eriksson. “Foti was on fire that night. Without him, we win that game. He’s one of those guys you don’t even notice out there. He’s so smart and knows where to position himself.”
“Last time we went into the game with a lot of respect for them,” he added. “We (Turnbull, Shipton and himself) have watched a lot of video now and we know how they play. And we will have more stamina with our current lineup.”
• Congratulations to former head coach Andrew Whalen and his partner Taylor, who recently welcomed their fourth child, Andrew, to their family.
• Josh Piexoto, Josh Davidson and Henry-Pierre Jayet continued to sit out this past weekend with injuries.
• Defenceman Alexander Jarnikov has taken some time off from the team to concentrate on his studies, as has backup goaltender Justin Appleton.
• The Predators will be welcoming two new acquisitions this week: forwards Jaleel Adams of St. Catharines and Mackenzie Okumura of Toronto, following a deal with the St. George Ravens.
• GM Eriksson says goaltender Jacob Sanders of Florida should also arrive this week from the Bellingham Blazers of the Western States Hockey League.
• The Friday and Sunday games marked the first live-streams for Niagara, with NOTL native Michael Frena calling the play-by-play. Eriksson credits goaltender Jacob Collaco’s father Conrad for figuring out the technical aspects to get the games up and running. Visit gmhl.tv to watch this Friday’s 7:30 p.m. home game and Sunday’s 1:45 p.m. start in North York.