Special to The Lake Report
Three back-to-back weekend games proved to be a little too much for the Jr. A Niagara Predators, who managed Friday and Saturday night wins before suffering a Sunday afternoon loss.
Niagara started off the weekend strong with a 5-2 victory over the North York Renegades who are tied for first ahead of the fourth-place Predators in the southern division of the Greater Metro Hockey League. All teams qualify for the league's playoffs, which start in early March.
After squeezing out a 5-4 win Saturday night on the road against the Windsor Aces, the Predators came up short Sunday afternoon in North York, losing 6-2 in their second match against the Renegades.
Despite the Sunday loss, the Predators' coaches are happy with their team’s weekend performance and the potential it shows for the upcoming playoffs.
“This is big. To me this is like winning a playoff game. This is huge,” head coach and team owner Robert Turnbull said on Friday night after beating North York.
“They played great. We implemented a forecheck system. Normally they pressure us so we asked the defence do so something a little different and the forwards to do something different and we just had to keep our head in the game.”
Turnbull acknowledged one of the challenges his team faces.
The team recently lost high-scoring Swedes Emil Eriksson and Jesper Eriksson, who did not return to Canada from their Christmas break after signing professional league contracts in Europe. Injuries and some undisciplined play have also left the team with a short bench.
Although North York found the net first, Predators’ Noah Caperchione fired back with a pair of goals – the first just shy of five minutes into the game and another 10 minutes later – putting his team ahead for the second period.
Seemingly not satisfied, Caperchione netted the only goal of the second period at the four-minute mark for a hat trick. He would get his fourth of the night with just two minutes left in the game but not before a North York goal early in the third period and the Predators’ fourth tally care of Alexander Insulander at the 14:32 mark.
Caperchione credits positioning and his linemates for his recent hot streak.
“We’re fast, we’re moving the puck, we’re seeing each other and keeping it deep. We came out with the win, no complaints here.”
Turnbull was confident enough in Friday’s win to sit out Saturday’s game, leaving the bench in the hands of assistants Samantha Marson and Connor Shipton.
Earning two points for their effort, both were happy with the Predators’ performance but felt they started off slow. They also believe a late, four-hour bus ride home following Saturday evening’s game played a role in their Sunday afternoon loss.
“Saturday we got off to a slow start, with a four-hour drive down to Windsor, guys just sitting there, of course it’s going to take a little while for their legs to get going. We ended up pulling out the win at the end,” said Shipton.
Niagara trailed for the first 40 minutes, with Jason Humphries managing their only point of the first period compared to two from Windsor’s Evan Ferguson. The second period saw Windsor’s Clayton Hightower twice answering back to singles from the Preds' Brenden Morin and Dante Massi.
Windsor failed to produce in the third period, with Alexander Page tying things up eight minutes in and Caperchione netting the winner at 13:25.
But the late nights and long bus rides started to show Sunday with Niagara managing their only two goals of the game in the first period thanks to Jason Humphries and Caperchione. With only two replies from North York, the second period started tied but four unanswered goals by the Renegades — one in the second period and three in the third – made for the 6-2 loss.
“We were right there with them for the first half of the game but just all the guys started to get tired. A three and three quick turnaround just caught up with them,” said Shipton.
Marson felt similarly but added she felt the team gained some momentum over the weekend and is starting to realize their first-place potential.
“I think after Friday the boys realized we do have a team to win it all if they want to put in the work,” she said. “I feel like after this weekend the boys realized nothing can really stop us if we put in the work and play as a team.”
With seven games left in the regular season, spirits are still high in the dressing room.
“Four out of six points out of the weekend, I’ll take it,” said Shipton. “But it was definitely a tough weekend.”
“I think going forward we just need to work as a team,” said Marson. “Trust each other and use each other’s strengths in order to pull out the wins from here and capitalize on what each player has.”
Niagara’s next home game is this Friday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at the Meridian Credit Union Arena.