OLIVER PAIPGOONGE – In hockey, it's better to make mistakes in September than October and beyond.
It doesn't mean Matt Valley likes them any better this time of year.
Valley, the second-year coach of the Kam River Fighting Walleye, said his team looked rusty on Saturday night, despite pulling out a 5-3 win over a team of Lakehead Junior Hockey League all-stars in the team's pre-season kick-off at the NorWest Arena.
Even though it's been nine months or more since the Fighting Walleye last too the ice with any regularity, Valley said he expected a little more from his troops against a team he felt they should have easily handled, exhibition or not.
“It feels good to win in the end, I guess, but at the end of the day we expect a lot more out of a lot of our guys and I think there are a lot of guys who are going to go home tonight and I hope they look in the mirror and come back feeling a little different tomorrow,” Valley said.
Defenceman Zach Fortin, who spent parts of two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before returning home to the Thunder Bay area, said there were bound to be highs and lows in Game 1, most of the players on both teams having been sidelined since late last year thanks to COVID-19 shutdowns.
The 20-year-old, who last played for the Northern Ontairo Junior Hockey League's Timmins Rock, said the exhibition season is a chance to shake some of that rust off and figure out what works and what doesn't.
“It's nice to get a little bit of chemistry with all the guys. It's nice to feel everyone out to see what guys are like as people on the ice. We already know everyone off the ice, so it's a little bit different bond on the ice,” Fortin said.
In the early going, it looked like the Fighting Walleye might just put up the kind of effort Valley was expecting.
The host squad jumped out to a 2-0 lead, Colin Wiseman and Carson Gorst beating All-Stars goaltender Zach Prenger in the first 11 minutes of the Superior International Junior Hockey League contest.
But the All-Stars had other ideas.
Jordan Weiss took a pair of whacks at the puck before stashing it past Kam River goaltender Eric Vanske, one of several returning players from last year's team.
Fortin restored the Fighting Walleye's two-goal lead early in the second on the power play, sliding a low shot from just inside the All-Stars blueline, but their advantage was short-lived, thanks in part to a pair of penalties that left the home side facing a 71-second two-man disadvantage.
Anthony Tassone and Jackson Buffone scored 42 seconds apart, both goals coming on the power play, to even the score 3-3.
At that point, it was about finding the will to win, Fortin said.
“I think we just got away from what our plan was when we were up and we just let them sneak back into the game. We came back after the intermission and kind of talked, (saying) we have to come back to the systems that were working. I think that's what happened in the third,” Fortin said.
Calvin Morrow, who scored once in four appearances with the Fighting Walleye in 2020-21, made his second goal with the team count.
Just past the two-minute mark Morrow crashed the crease and took a behind-the-back pass from Christian Veneruzzo, swiping at it twice before it dribbled over the goal line for what proved to be the game-winning goal.
Three minutes later Mackenzie Sedgwick stepped over the blue-line and ripped a wrist shot that caught the back of the net, putting the game out of reach.
The two teams will wrap up the abbreviated Teleco Cup series on Sunday afternoon. Puck drop is 1 p..m.
Scoring: 1. Kam River, Wiseman (Fortin,Lancaster) 5:55. 2. Kam River, Gorst (Veneruzzo, Caddo) 11:00. 3. LJHL, Weiss (Intini, McGuire) 12:30. Penalties: None.
Scoring: 4. Kam River, Fortin (Obuck, Crysler) 5:34 pp. 5. LJHL, Tassone (Swerhun, Intini) 9:41 pp. 6. LJHL, Buffone (Francis, Hutton) 10:23 pp. Penalties: Wiseman KAM (interference) 0:10, 9 LJR Swerhun (cross checking double minor) 3:05, Bench minor KAM (too man men, served by Mercredi) 7:53, Sedgwick KAM (tripping) 8:42, MacKenzie KAM (interference) 16:56, Weiss LJR (roughing) 17:10.
Scoring: 7. Kam River, Morrow (Veneruzzo,Gorst) 2:19. 8. Kam River, Sedgwick (unassisted) 5:43. Penalties: Duchene KAM (kneeing) 9:29, Veneruzzo KAM (slashing, misconduct), Intini LJR (misconduct) 15:55.
GAME DATA – SOG – Lakehead Juniors 10-12-5-27, Kam River 14-16-18-48; Power plays (goals-chances) – Lakehead Juniors (2-6), Kam River (1-2); Goaltenders – Lakehead Junios: Zach Prenger, Kam River: Eric Vanska; A: 275.