Special to The Lake Report
They were hoping for 12 straight and managed 11 but the Niagara Predators fell one win short of finishing 2021 with a dozen consecutive victories, losing their final game of the year to the second place North York Renegades.
Starting Friday night, Niagara took on the Windsor Aces at the Meridian Credit Union Arena, scoring a 12-4 victory, bringing their latest winning streak to 11 games. However, a road game Sunday against North York – who sit just one spot above Niagara in the southern division of the Greater Metro Jr. A Hockey League – ended in a 5-3 loss to close out 2021.
Predators’ assistant coach and assistant general manager Connor Shipton was happy with their performance over the weekend but still felt some improvements could be made – citing a slow start to Sunday’s game as an issue.
“But things really picked up in the second and third period, so really, if you take away the first period we could’ve won 3-2,” he said. “We have to work on getting out of the gate sooner and putting the pressure on.”
Shipton also felt North York’s goaltender was weaker than Predators netminder Iain Riordon and believes his team missed some opportunities by not getting in more shots early in the game.
“We missed some chances because we didn’t test their goaltender a little sooner.”
North York dominated the first period of the game, taking a three-goal lead after 20 minutes and scoring a fourth goal 34 seconds into the second period.
Georgy Kholmovsky finally put the Predators on the scoreboard after 31 minutes of play, but a power play goal for the Renegades with two minutes left in the period kept the difference at three. Undeterred, Brett Lee answered back for Niagara just 17 seconds later.
Niagara would hold North York at five goals for the rest of the game, with Kholmovsky getting his second of the night 10:14 into the last period but it wasn’t enough to earn the Predators their 12th straight “W.”
Shipton feels spirits are still high in the locker room, saying everyone is very happy with their performance in the first half of the season.
“(Coach) Robert (Turnbull) was saying in the dressing room that nobody expected us to be where we are right now,” he said. “The amount of wins in a row doesn’t really matter to me.”
Even with the loss, Shipton still believes there was an improvement in play compared to their Friday night game against Windsor but said things could have gone better.
“If they played the way we know they can play, I think we could have beaten North York.”
Despite a sound victory by eight goals on Friday night, Turnbull was unhappy with his team’s performance against Windsor.
“If we play the way we did today, it’s going to be tough for us Sunday (against North York),” he said after the game, adding he wanted his team to be more physical and aggressive. “We have to put the puck in the net but at the same time we have to play on the defensive side of the pole.”
“Unless we’re disciplined, we could get our butts kicked. Win or lose I’m hoping for a real good game because you want to finish in the top three and I want to finish at the top.”
Friday night’s scoresheet logged 12 goals for Niagara: five from Alexander Insulander, two for Jesper Eriksson, two for Noah Caperchione and singles for Reese Bisci and brothers Dante and Alessandro Massi.
Absent from the ice this weekend was captain Mario Zitella who is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Per the league’s official policy that all players, trainers and team staff must be fully vaccinated to participate, Zitella is unable to play.
“Mario is not on the team right now. Mario has to get his vaccinations in order to get back on the team. It’s mandatory,” said Turnbull, who declined to talk specifics on the topic.
“I had a conversation with Mario and I’m pretty strict when it comes to health and safety. I do my due diligence and I check everything and he needs to be vaccinated.”
So far this season Zitella has scored 17 goals in 22 games for a total of 42 points and leads the team’s first line. Turnbull said Caperchione is doing a great job with the line at the moment but would like to have Zitella back in order to have four strong lines.
“He’s a classy individual, he’s a tremendous player and hopefully he decides to get his vaccinations sooner rather than later since he’s committed to a Division 1 (U.S.) school,” said Turnbull of Zitella. “I hope to see him back. I think the world of him and I said I’d do whatever I could for him.”
The league takes a short break from play for the holidays with the Predators returning to the ice on Friday, Jan. 7, at the Meridian arena. They’ll be facing off against the St. George Ravens at 7:30 p.m.