The Jr. A Niagara Predators faced one of their toughest challenges this past week but rose to the occasion against two top-notch teams in as many games, jumping up two spots in the standings.
Niagara took on the first-place North York Renegades at home last Friday and the third-place Durham Roadrunners on the road Monday, taking the Renegades into overtime, losing 4-3 and then the Preds beat the Roadrunners 4-3 on the road three days later.
To sweeten the deal, the Predators bested the Temiscaming Titans of the Greater Metro Hockey League’s North Division 5-3 in a special league showcase game Tuesday at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls.
“I thought the boys worked hard. They battled and didn’t give up and that’s what we’re looking for all year,” head coach Kevin Taylor said after Friday’s game. “They battled back and got the point.”
Niagara’s Georgy Kholmovsky put the Predators ahead 5:36 into the game, a lead they held for almost 30 minutes before North York netted their first. A second by the Renegades two minutes later had Niagara down by one going into the third period.
The Renegades pulled ahead by two with eight minutes to go, but a pair of goals in one minute by Luca Fernandez had things tied up with less than two minutes left to force overtime.
Holding on in three-on-three OT against a trio of some of the league’s top scorers, the Predators came 36 seconds shy of a shootout finisher.
With Niagara’s goaltender Zane Clausen stopping a total of 57 shots over the course of the night, that may have been just what the Predators needed to pull off the win.
“It’s disappointing but it’s disappointing in a positive way because they deserved better,” said Taylor.
“I know the shots were stupid for them, but I thought we played well. Certain guys struggled and it was frustrating, and those are the guys we expect to step up their game but they didn’t come to play tonight. But other guys did.”
Monday’s game was equally dramatic with Durham holding a two-goal lead by the end of the first period, but it was all Niagara in the second. Fernandez, Shane Kaplan and Reese Bisci pitched in to turn the tide.
Durham tied it midway through the third but Fernandez notched the winner just seven seconds before the final buzzer.
“There’s heart and character now,“ said Taylor. “They’re on top of the world right now. They’re starting to see what we’ve known all along.”
Nolan Wyers, Nocholas Nicoletti, Kholmovsky and Dylan Denning all scored Tuesday against Temiscaming – with two by Denning – to keep things on track and put the Predators two points ahead of the Northumberland Stars, and even with the St. George Ravens at 22 points with five games in hand.
“When we looked at the schedule, I don’t think anybody had us for any points,” said Taylor. “The guys needed a couple of wins under their belt to get their swagger.”
Although the Predators have never beaten North York, this is both the second time they have forced the Renegades into overtime.
But with Niagara now partway through a stretch of games against top-tier opponents, the wins – and overtime loss – serve as a timely confidence boost for a team that has been struggling. Taylor had noticed a marked change in his team’s attitude, even before Tuesday’s game.
“You could just see everyone walking a little taller,” he said. “They’re excited for the team to do well.”
The Predators still face a tough road ahead with Durham up next on the schedule, North York on Sunday and the second-place Bradford Bulls twice the following week. A much-earned break for the holidays will come after that.
The Niagara Predators host Durham this Friday, Dec. 15 at the Meridian Credit Union Arena. Game time is 7:30 p.m.