A stretch of three-on-three play in the third period turned out to be the difference in the Niagara Predators home opener Friday at Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena. The Tottenham Railers used a speedy attack to hand the Preds a 5-3 loss to start their Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League (GMHL) season.
“We didn’t come out for the third period,” coach Kevin Taylor said after the disappointing loss. “We’ve been doing three-on-three’s in practice, and they were absolutely terrible tonight. I’ll chalk this up as learning, but they’ve got to be better than that. I didn’t expect such a bad effort in the third period.”
One of the largest crowds in the team’s three-year history cheered enthusiastically as each player was introduced prior to local resident Devon Botbyl dropping the puck for the ceremonial first faceoff.
The Predators seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd in the first two periods, outshooting the Railers 35-26 and skating to a 3-2 lead by the end of the second before it all fell apart in the third.
Newcomer Shane Kaplan scored the Preds’ first goal of the season 9:30 into the first period when Guy Manco fed the puck back to the blue line to Nicholas Nicoletti. The defenseman took a quick wrist shot that was deflected by Kaplan past Tottenham goaltender Thomas Rousseau.
Shortly after that goal, the Predators were successfully fending off the Railers attack during a five minute boarding penalty taken by Ethan Culp. When his teammate Dylan Denning was subsequently called for slashing, the Railers enjoyed a two-man advantage. Tottenham capitalized on the Preds’ inability to clear the zone when Gabriel Mammoliti scored the tying goal on the power play with 3:51 remaining in the first.
With penalties assessed to the Predators’ Dylan Denning and Aidan Jones as well as Galeone Nicolo of the Railers near the end of the first period, Tottenham began the second with another advantage, this time four-on-three. Just 43 seconds in they went up 2-1 when Sebastian DeCastro took a cross-ice pass from Ryan Anderson and tucked the puck past Niagara goalie Zane Clausen.
The Preds tied it up five minutes later when Buffalo native Denning took a pass from Isaac Locker and scored on a wrist shot from the blue line. With 6’5” Niagara-on-the-Lake native Josh Frena screening Rousseau, Denning’s shot knotted the game at 2-2.
The Preds went up 3-2 when Culp, on his way to the ice after a check from behind, fed the puck to Locker, who was closing in on Rousseau’s left side. Locker, all alone in the face-off circle, was able to beat the goaltender with a quick shot.
The Preds took that lead into the third. But the Railers tied it up just over three minutes in when James McLean knocked a rebound into the net past a sprawling Clausen.
Four minutes later Niagara forward Nolan Wyers retaliated on some rough play by cross checking a Railers defender in front of the net. A battle ensued, with another Railer jumping in to help. Reese Bisci entered the fray to assist Wyers and ended up exchanging punches with Tottenham’s Alexzander Madimanos. Bisci, ,Madimanos and the Railers’ Émile Martin were all given two minute penalties, while Wyers was handed a five minute cooldown.
During the ensuing three-on-three play the Preds were outskated by Tottenham and repeatedly had trouble clearing their zone. Ryan Anderson and Alexis Hébert scored within 32 seconds of each other to put the Railers up 5-3.
The Predators had three power play chances of their own after that, and actually outshot Tottenham 18-12 in the third period. But Rousseau, chosen as the first star of the game, continued to shut the door on them the rest of the way.
“The first period, we got the jitters out,” Taylor added. “I thought we played really well in the second. But the third just ruined the game for us. It’s too long of a game for some of these guys this early in the season.”
Friday night, the Railers played a physical, speedy style of game that last year’s Thunder squad rarely exhibited.
That’s because it was a much different Tottenham team than last year’s, who went 14-27-1 and finished seventh in the GMHL’s nine-team South Division. Over the offseason the Thunder were sold to Michael Prock, who rebranded them as the Railers and brought in Niagara Falls native and former Fort Erie Meteor Vito Scaringi as head coach.
“And we’re a much different team than last year, too,” Taylor said. “We only had Bisci and Wyers returning on forward from last year. You have to take the learning into consideration, it is the first game. It comes down to how the loss happens. There wasn’t enough intensity, enough urgency out there. I didn’t see the speed that I expected, either.”
Up next for the Predators is the St. George Ravens, another GMHL team with new ownership. Predators owner Robert Turnbull, who had also owned the Ravens, sold the team to Russ Lockwood.
The Ravens, who opened their season with a lopsided 10-0 loss to the North York Renegades Friday night, come to Virgil Friday, September 22 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for seniors.