Relief is probably the best way to describe what the Lions de Trois-Rivières players are feeling right now, as they won their first game in franchise history, 2-0 against the Maine Mariners on the road, in their fourth game of the season.
It was certainly a tall order to launch your franchise against the most stacked team in the ECHL without any exhibition games, but the Lions did just that, and dropped three straight games to the Newfoundland Growlers.
The first game, in front of a sellout crowd at the Colisée Vidéotron, was only 15 seconds young when the Growlers scored their first goal. The first period was ugly, as the Lions only had five shots on net, and went down 3-0. The first goal in franchise history came off the stick of Alexis D’Aoust, late in the second period, but the painful first period was too much to overcome in a 6-3 loss to kick off the franchise.
For the second game, the Lions were much tighter defensively, while goaltender Phillipe Desrosiers, on loan from the Winnipeg Jets organization, put in a tremendous effort to keep the game scoreless. The Growlers scored a late goal at the end of the first period and another one late in the second period, holding a 2-0 lead headed into the third period. Arsen Khisamutdinov, one of two players on the Lions with an NHL contract, scored his first of the season to bring the Lions within one, but a late empty-netter sealed it for the Growlers as they went on to win 3-1.
The Lions waited to play the third game while the Growlers popped down to Glens Falls to play against the Adirondack Thunder first. As was the case with the second game, the third game was also a tight defensive affair that lasted until late in the third period. The Lions were down 2-1 with four minutes left when they pulled their goalie, Kevin Poulin. The Growlers converted two empty-net goals, winning 4-1.
Although the Lions lost three games, the record should not be judged harshly, as Growlers goalie Keith Petruzzelli was extremely solid in the second and third games, and the Lions simply could not solve him. Petruzzelli was named first star of both games, stopping 70 of 72 shots coming his way. He also earned Goaltender of the Week honours.
Fast forward to Friday night where a frustrated group of players were looking forward to playing a different opponent and looking for that evasive first win. The Lions traveled to Portland, Maine to face off against the Mariners, another divisional rival, for their first ever road game, and the team would need to go ahead without arguably their best forward, Khisamutdinov, who was dealing with some work-visa issues.
The first period failed to provide any pace, as frequent icings and offsides stunted the flow of play, but in turn took the 2,300 Mariners fans at Cross Insurance Arena out of the game, negating the home-ice advantage of a partisan crowd. Unlike the games against the Growlers, both teams remained disciplined, as a tightly contested defensive game played out over two periods. Former Calgary Flames goaltender Jon Gillies took care of business for the Mariners, while the Lions continued to alternate, with Desrosiers putting in another solid performance.
A scoreless deadlock was broken when rookie Justin Ducharme broke in alone, and while his shot was blocked by Gillies, Olivier Archambault cleaned up the rebound for his first goal of the season. The Lions would add another goal a few minutes later to go up 2-0, and their defence did the rest to shut down any attempted Mariner incursion.
The Lions have now played four games in their nascent first season, and some early remarks can start being made.
The team is defensively sound, on the backs of Charles-David Beaudoin, Mathieu Gagnon, and Mathieu Brodeur. What does get through is confidently blocked by Desrosiers, who has outplayed Poulin so far after two starts each. Poulin seems to struggle with puck-control, and one has to wonder how much longer head coach Eric Belanger will continue to alternate goalies.
Olivier Galipeau was brought in to provide some offence from the blue line, but has so far put up one point in four games, and has a team worst -7 goal differential. He does play significant minutes on the team’s top two pairs, so more contribution would be expected, but not at the expense of defensive assignments. The team is one-for-18 on the power play, another area where Galipeau was expected to contribute.
Speaking of contribution, all of the forwards need to step up. It’s understandable that having a roster full of players unfamiliar with each other, and with the coach, to need some time to gel, and hopefully that’s what we are seeing here. The Lions have only scored seven goals in four games, and clearly that’s not a rate that is going to win you many hockey games.
It’s too early in the season to point fingers, but we can highlight the positives, and one of them has been Khisamutdinov, who is finally getting regular minutes since coming over from the KHL, and has quickly moved up to the top line. Peter Abbandonato is put in the position of top-line centre, and although showing quickness on skates, has not shown the desired impact, but you get the feeling that there is talent to unlock in him still. Shawn St-Amant is visible due to his heavy usage alongside Abbandonato. Alexis D’Aoust appears in bursts, as you may not realize that he’s playing for long stretches of the game, then suddenly he’s in on a scoring event.
The Lions have the week off now, and next play on Friday and Saturday against the Reading Royals back at the Colisée. With so much time between games, may they take the time to review film of the first four games and find a way to awaken the offence in order to not have to hang hopes on low-scoring games to win.