Short-handed juniors were 'warriors,' proud general manager says
Special to The Lake Report
Niagara-on-the-Lake got its first taste of junior hockey in about two years last Friday night and it couldn’t have been sweeter for the home team.
The Niagara Predators took on the Streetsville Flyers, skating away with a 5-3 victory in their Greater Metro Jr. A Hockey League home opener at the Meridian Credit Union Arena.
A crowd of about 100 took in the new NOTL team’s debut.
On Sunday, on the road versus the St. George Ravens, the team came up short, losing 4-2. They started off slowly and didn't get on the scoreboard till early in the third period.
It was a different story in front of the home crowd Friday. The Predators started off strong, with their first goal coming just five minutes into the game by captain Mario Zitella, with a second 10 minutes later by Alexander Insulander making for an early 2-0 lead at the end of the first.
After a stronger second period, Streetsville’s Evan Camara managed an unassisted powerplay goal, closing the gap to a one-goal difference heading into the last 20 minutes.
A rallying start resulted in two goals for Streetsville to take the lead but Zitella responded with his second goal to tie it up at 10:04.
A powerplay marker by Predators’ Dante Massi gave them the lead and an empty-netter by Emil Eriksson with just under three minutes left sealed the deal for a Predators’ victory.
Predators head coach Andrew Whalen said he was happy with his team’s performance, which saw them returning to the ice for the first time in nearly two years when COVID forced the cancellation of the league’s 2020-2021 season.
“I thought we started a little bit slow, we had a great first period and got that first goal, and I think as the game went on, we really started to pick it up,” said Whalen.
“We got into a little bit of penalty trouble there, with being short on bodies it doesn’t help but we killed it off and then we played strong the rest of the way.”
The team is playing a bit short-handed, waiting for the arrival of several players, something general manager Johan Eriksson said should be sorted out in about a month.
The team’s current bench of 15 (including two goalies) consists of five Swedes and 10 Canadians with more players from Sweden, Russia and Switzerland on the way. By comparison, Streetsville dressed 20 players, including two goalies on Friday.
But despite the short bench, Eriksson said Friday night’s game shows the team can produce.
“I’m very happy with how well they did,” he said. “With only four defence, we were down to three – not even three – lines and facing a team that runs four lines and plays hard.”
“I’m proud of the guys today. They were warriors today, they really were.”
With last year’s COVID-cancelled season, the Predators relocated to NOTL from North York. But Eriksson and Whalen both say the team is quickly settling in to the town and the rink.
“I like it,” said Whalen of the Meridian arena. “To be honest, I won an atom championship here like 20 years ago so it’s nice to come back. I like the ice surface, it’s a big, big rink.”
“The staff here are awesome so sometimes we get a little extra ice, which helps us out with our conditioning and everything so it’s been a great adjustment here.”
Whalen was also pleased with the size of the crowd and said he thinks his team put on enough of a show for the fans to want to see more. Things will only get better as their roster expands.
“We’ve been seeing kids at their practices and stuff so hopefully we can get some of them out watching us and cheering us on,” he said.
“We’re just really happy to get the support. We hope to give back to the community and get involved and hopefully they can meet some more of our players.”
Off the ice, Eriksson has high hopes for his team’s place in NOTL, an area he said he loves.
“That’s one of the reasons we wanted a team here is because Niagara-on-the-Lake is such a great place,” he said.
“First of all it’s a beautiful town, a calm town and it’s a hockey town, too. We like it, all the players have adjusted really, really well and I just moved down myself and love it. Yeah, we’re here to stay.”
On Sunday against St. George, the Predators closed the gap with goals by Emil Eriksson and Insulander by midway through the third period, but the Ravens sealed it with an empty netter with 16 seconds left.
"I thought the boys played well, we just didn't want to shoot the puck at the start and then we picked up the pace and started to gain some confidence and in the third period started shooting the puck more," said Whalen.
"But unfortunately they got that goal right at the end. It was an empty net goal, so the boys just got unlucky with that."
Whalen attributes some of the loss to a lack of practice time so far this season and plans on working more on positioning in preparation for their Friday night home game against Tottenham and a return engagement against St. George in Virgil on Oct. 15.
"We're going to put really good pressure on them now that we have another chance to do that," he said. "We'll try to work on defence and work on getting the puck out of the neutral zone and getting the guys in the right positions. We'll be better."
The next home game for the Predators is versus the Tottenham Thunder on Friday, Oct. 8. Puck drops at 7:30 p.m.