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Two weekend wins for Preds mean they hold on to fourth place

Predator Zane Clausen won in his debut start in goal against Tottenham Friday and notched another win against Windsor in his second game Saturday.

Niagara Predators head coach Kevin Taylor says he never knows what to expect when his Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League team takes on the Windsor Aces. 

Back in November, the Aces picked up their second win of the season, 4-1, over the visiting Preds. Since that day, the Aces have gone 1-16-1 and are second last in the league’s South Division.

Taylor’s Niagara squad notched its 15th win of the season, 5-2, on another visit to the border city Saturday night. It took a late surge of three goals in the final seven minutes of the game for the Predators to break a 2-2 tie and seal the victory.

“We got that one out of the way,” says a relieved Taylor. “It’s so difficult to play against them. They have some good players, but they always have a short bench. The guys see that and  think it’s going to be point night, but it never is.”

Niagara defender Guy Manco had the game’s first goal in the opening period, assisted by Askar Aimanbetov and Timur Mirzaiants. But Windsor’s Samuel Senft tied it up late in the second with his 41st goal of the season. 

Anthony Tropea put the Predators back in the lead 1:52 into the third, but Ryan Patterson tied it up again for the Aces with just under eight minutes remaining. The Preds finally took the lead once again 51 seconds later when Leo Savin beat Windsor goalie Justin Sheets. 

The Preds shut down the Aces the rest of the way, with insurance goals added by Mirzaiants and Cameron Savoie for good measure. 

Mirzaiants finished the game with a goal and two assists, while linemate Aimanbetov added three helpers. Goalie Zane Clausen, who debuted with the Predators Friday night against Tottenham, picked up his second straight win. Mirzaiants and Aimanbetov are also newcomers to Niagara, playing in their third and second games respectively. 

“All the players that we have brought in have added to the team,” Taylor says. “They all bring something different. We put the two Russians (Mirzaiants and Leo Savin) and Aimanbetov from Kazakhstan, together. The way they see each other, the way they move the puck is phenomenal. Leo in particular really stepped up his defensive game.”

On the Niagara roster since the start of the season, Aimanbetov only arrived in Canada last Tuesday. It took months for his travel arrangements to be finalized. 

Though Aimanbetov didn’t get a chance to practice with the team last week, Taylor dressed him for Friday night’s 7-1 win over the Thunder. He demonstrated excellent puck sense and a keen ability to find his teammates with passes, even though he collected zero points Friday.

“His leadership is something we have missed all year,” raves a very impressed Taylor. “The way he carries himself is great. He doesn’t put up with much from the other guys on the bench. He was a real leader on Saturday. He said some things in that game and the guys tended to listen to him.”

With Niagara’s number one goalie Ryan Santini potentially out for two more weeks after re-aggravating a shoulder injury, Taylor will be relying more heavily on the newly acquired Clausen. At 6’4” and 201 pounds, the 20-year-old from North Dakota strikes an imposing figure.

“He’s a huge presence in net,” Taylor agrees. “I’ve never really had a big goalie to coach before. It’s nice having that intimidation factor when they come down the ice. They think they have a spot but they don’t because he’s so big that he covers a lot of the net.”

Unlike the other Predators net-minders, Clausen frequently leaves his crease to feed the puck to teammates and to cut off angles against attackers. 

“He likes to move the puck,” Taylor says. “That’s something we haven’t had, it’s something new. Maybe it’s something we can add as a new method for a regroup, or to try and catch the other team sleeping.”

With the two wins this weekend, the Predators were able to hang on to fourth place in the South Division with 33 points. But the middle of the pack continues to be congested. Northumberland is in fifth with 32, followed by St. George with 31 and Tottenham with 29. Niagara hosts the St. George Ravens Friday night. 

“They’ve gotten better, they’ve added some players,” Taylor says about the Ravens. “This is a game we have to win. With all the games (nine) we have coming up, to be realistic, I’m giving us one more loss.”

The potential loss he is referring to is on Feb. 13, when the Predators visit Durham, a team they have yet to beat this season. The other games include four against last-place Streetsville, another against the Ravens, one in Tottenham and one against Northumberland.

“Good teams find a way to win,” Taylor concludes. “That’s what I’m concentrating on, it’s all that matters to me. This weekend a good team found a way to win. We have to keep finding that way.”

Puck drop is 7:30 p.m. Friday at Virgil’s Meridian Credit Union Arena.