The Niagara Predators made a strong statement in their 7-0 grounding of the St. George Ravens in Virgil Friday night.
“I think we took it to them pretty good,” said head coach Kevin Taylor after the game. “I think it separates us from the rest of the clump, it establishes us as a team that is going to be ready to go.”
Where they are ready to go is to the playoffs, hopefully as the fourth seed in the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League’s (GMHL) post-season. They continue to hold down that spot with just eight games left to play, three points ahead of Northumberland in the South Division, four points over St George and six over Tottenham.
And the league is starting to notice. The league released their power rankings for February and, though the Predators didn’t make it into the top 10, they clawed their way to an honourable mention for the first time this season after their third straight victory.
Both teams came onto the Meridian Credit Union ice ready to assert their physical dominance Friday, with St. George’s Malcolm Campbell decking Niagara’s Declan Fogarty just seconds into the game. But the Predators soon began to hit back with physical play of their own.
The Niagara power play faltered in the first 10 minutes of the game. Nearly successive two minute and five minute penalties to the Ravens gave the Preds some early opportunities but they failed to solve St. George goalie Owen Neomytka with the man advantage.
Later, in the 12th minute, Askar Aimanbetov took the puck in front of Neomytka and left a perfect no-look drop pass to the trailing Nick Savoie, who knocked a wrist shot behind the helpless goalie to give the Predators a 1-0 lead.
Niagara’s penalty kill was under the spotlight a number of times during the second period, successfully shutting down any opportunities the Ravens were able to muster time after time.
Then, with 3:47 left in the second, Leo Savin brought the puck up the right side and fed a forward pass into the St. George zone to Timur Mirzaiants. Mirzaiants backhanded the puck to Alexander Andrews who came charging in undefended in front of Neomytka for the Preds second goal.
Just over a minute later, Guy Manco’s slapshot from the point was stopped by Neomytka, but Nolan Wyers was there waiting for the rebound. As the goalie tried to glove the loose puck Wyers knocked it past him as he was taken to the ice by St. George’s Cameron Ison.
Somehow the 3-0 lead felt a bit tenuous heading into the third period. Things started to get rough in the last 20 minutes, as St. George tempers began to flare. Late hits and some pushing after the whistle forced the Preds to push back. A total of 71 minutes in penalties, including two 10 minute misconducts to each team, was assessed during that period.
Amid all of the on-ice turmoil Niagara ran away with the game. Mirzaiants, Ethan Boyd, Andrews and Cameron Savoie all added goals for the Predators to run the score up to 7-0.
Nick Savoie, who scored the first Preds marker, was a huge factor at the Niagara end of the ice, shutting down the Ravens attack and helping goalie Zane Clausen earn his first shutout in a Niagara jersey, only the second one for the team all season.
Twenty-year-old Mandan, North Dakota native Clausen is now 3-0 with Niagara, after coming over from the North Division’s Bradford Rattlers at the trade deadline. The timing turned out to be perfect for the Preds, who lost number one goalie Ryan Santini to a shoulder injury the same week.
“It feels good to bounce back with a new team,” Clausen told The Local. “The first couple days up here were a difficult adjustment, but in Bradford, I wanted to be a starting goalie, so I wanted to take my skills somewhere else. I get to start fresh here.”
Clausen showed incredible confidence and calm in stopping all 30 shots by St. George, including two great opportunities for the Ravens on breakaways.
“I try not to think too much out there,” Clausen said. “I’ve learned pretty recently to just keep a clear mind and have fun, to not stress so much about it.”
“He played a great game,” Taylor said about the 6’4” Clausen. “It’s the size of him. It’s intimidating for a lot of shooters who come down the ice on him. He’s a nice addition.”
Taylor admitted that Friday’s game was a statement game, but added that the real statement will be this Tuesday, when the Preds host the Ravens at Port Colborne’s Vale Centre for a game rescheduled from the one cancelled during the Dec. 23 snowstorm.
“Will we roll over and allow things to happen, or are we going to continue this?” Taylor pondered. “St. George is a good team, but sometimes they come out flat. They had some good opportunities tonight. We just have to stay focused on things.”
Jaroslav Dohnal, who was involved in a third period fight, will serve a two-game suspension that will cover Tuesday’s game and Friday’s home contest against the eighth place Streetsville Flyers. He will be available for the rest of the weekend, though, as the Preds travel to Tottenham Saturday night then welcome the Flyers back to Niagara Sunday night.
“It’s unfortunate that the game turned out that way,” Taylor said of the fights Friday. “Jerry (Dohnal) got slashed, and he went after the guy, then another guy came over and slashed him, so he fought him.”
There’s no doubt that keeping their cool in those situations will be key as the Predators head toward their quest for thel leagure’s Russell Cup.
’It’s just now trying to keep everyone on an even keel,” Taylor says, “to make sure they don’t have personal goals, to not put personal ambitions ahead of team ambitions.”
Tuesday’s rematch against the Ravens in Port Colborne begins at 8:30 p.m., while Friday’s game against Streetsville at the Meridian Credit Union Arena in Virgil begins at 7:30 p.m.