There were some emotional moments at the end of Sunday’s Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League game. With the scoreboard emphasizing the final result, a 6-2 loss to the North York Renegades, the Niagara Predators wanted to stay on the ice as long as they could.
Team owner, head coach and general manager Robert Turnbull stood by the open door, greeting each player as they stepped from the ice toward the dressing room, thanking them for a great season. Forward Alexander Page hugged the 72-year-old hockey lifer and said, “thank you, coach, for giving me a chance to play.”
The Predators lost not only the game but also the best-of-five GMHL Russell Cup semi-final three games to one, eliminating them from the playoffs and bringing to an end their first season playing out of Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena.
“They’re an exceptional group of young men,” Turnbull told The Local after the game. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying. The other team played better than we did. Darryl (Renegades coach Darryl Lloyd) had the whole team playing great positional hockey, and we didn’t initiate any contact whatsoever today.”
Niagara opened the scoring Sunday on the power play, when defenceman Pontus Madsen skated down the left side into the North York end and unleashed a shot that was stopped by Renegades goaltender Nicholas Lewicky. Alexander Insulander capitalized on his position in front of the crease and tucked away the rebound to give the Preds a 1-0 lead. But it didn’t last long.
Less than a minute later, Renegades forward Brandon Stojcevski weakly backhanded the puck from behind the net, where it bounced off the back of Predators goalie Morgan Penwell’s skate and past the goal line to tie it up.
Niagara defenceman Nathan Fehr was sent to the penalty box for interference a few minutes after that. During the power play, Stojcevski took a shot from the right point where it caromed off the stick of teammate Christopher Rende and past Penwell to give North York the lead.
The two fluke goals seemed to knock the wind out of the Predators. They had problems moving the puck out of their end for most of the game, and when they did, Lewicky had few real challenges from the Niagara attack.
Sojcevski notched his second goal and Nikolai Salov added another to give North York a 4-1 lead in the second, before Jason Humphries took a perfect pass from Page for the Predators second goal.
With the momentum possibly turning Niagara’s way, Turnbull decided to replace Penwell with Iain Riordan to give the team some added spark. But Dylan Labelle added an unassisted goal with 2:21 left in the second to restore the Renegades three-goal lead.
Labelle added his second goal in the third period, making it 6-2 for North York. Humphries had another chance shortly after that when he was left alone for a short breakaway, but Lewicky once again shut the door, as he had been doing for much of the series. The Predators subsequently mounted a couple of ineffective power plays, including one during which they failed to get even one shot on net.
There were some desperate attempts in the last half of the third, and some pushing and shoving as tempers flared between Fehr and North York’s Niko Andreopoulos. But Niagara’s fate was sealed long before the buzzer sounded to end the game.
It was a disappointing end to a series that could have gone Niagara’s way.
Though the Renegades scored two shorthanded goals early in game one on Tuesday, March 15, and skated to a 3-2 lead in the first, Niagara roared back that night in North York to move out front 5-3 early in the third period. The Predators actually chased Lewicky out of the game after Dante Massi’s third-period goal.
But the wheels fell off a few minutes later, as two quick goals by Vadim Karpenko and Santino Foti tied it up. The true turning point seemed to be right after that, when Niagara’s Noah Caperchione was awarded a penalty shot after being taken down on a clear break.
Caperchione skated in on Lewicky’s replacement, Garin Janiuk, who stopped the forward’s attempt to deke him out on the left side. The Renegades went on to score three more unanswered goals for an 8-5 win in the opener.
Game two went Niagara’s way last Wednesday, with Alessandro Massi opening the scoring late in the first period with a shot that bounced off the crossbar and in. Reese Bisci and Georgy Kholmovsky found the net in the second period, giving the Preds a 3-0 lead heading into the final 20 minutes.
Again, the wheels fell off a bit in the third, with Stojcevski scoring two for the Renegades, before Dante Massi took a pass from Page and beat North York goaltender Janiuk for what turned out to be the winning goal, after the Renegades Christian D’Amico closed the margin to one later in the period.
Iain Riordan was superb in net for the Preds in game two, stopping a number of desperate attempts by the Renegades when they sent Janiuk to the bench in favour of the extra attacker, which actually made it five-on-five as North York’s Frank Monachino closed out the game serving time in the box.
That win guaranteed the Predators a chance to close out the series with the home-rink advantage, with games scheduled in Virgil Friday and Sunday. An added bonus – smooth-skating, high-scoring Swedish forward Jesper Eriksson was to return for the remainder of the series after his season with Forshaga IF of Sweden’s HockeyEttan league ended.
Despite the likely jet lag from having flown in early Friday morning, Eriksson made an almost immediate impact. Ten minutes into the game Eriksson found the puck after Lewicky stopped defenseman Brenden Morin and put the Predators on the scoreboard for the only goal in the first period.
But that would be about as far as the Swede’s storybook return would go. Stojcevski and Foti scored early in the second and the Renegades held that 2-1 lead until Page aimed a nifty backhand shot into the top shelf to tie it up with twelve seconds remaining in the period.
Again in the third, North York scored two early goals, one on a failed clearing attempt by the Predators and another on a two-on-one break. The Preds had four power plays during the period and failed to capitalise on all but the last one, when Caperchione narrowed the margin to a single goal.
In the final two minutes Niagara made an all-out effort to try to force overtime but ultimately came up short.
Throughout the series the Renegades seemed to have more fire and to be peaking at the right time. As well, when their leading scorer Foti was being checked closely, players like Stojcewski and Karpenko were stepping up their game. The trio racked up 12 goals and 17 assists between them over the four games. In contrast, the trio of Dante Massi, Caperchione and Bisci, who were putting up big numbers in the last few regular season games, was held to a total of four goals and one assist in the series. As well, Lewicky frequently came up with big saves on some of the Preds best chances.
At the end of Sunday’s game, Turnbull presented each of the Predators with their yellow home jerseys to take home with them. And he reflected on a rewarding year with a group of players who gave their all for him after he took over as coach and general manager following the departure of Andrew Whalen and Johan Eriksson in those respective roles.
“Having to step in and do this, and driving from Pickering for the games and practices,” he said, “it’s been a very rewarding year. I didn’t want to come off the ice either, but that was their moment. We’ll all get back together soon for a banquet and celebrate the year.” He promised he would not be back behind the bench for 2022-2023 under any circumstances.
“It took more out of me than you could imagine,” he laughed. “Those long drives, getting home at two or three a.m., and then the next day I would be exhausted. But it’s been a pleasure.”
Turnbull will continue to work with the players through the off-season to connect them with scouts and officials in NCAA schools and pro leagues. And he anticipates talking to NOTL parks and recreation staff about their plans moving forward in the Virgil arenas.
The other Turnbull-owned GMHL team, the St. George Ravens, gave the first place Durham Roadrunners a battle in the other Southern Division semi-final. After forcing a fifth game with an 8-0 home drubbing Sunday, they fell 5-1 to the Roadrunners Monday night. Durham was scheduled to host the Renegades in the Southern Division best-of-seven final’s opening game Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.