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Lions Bites: Seeking success in the south

Hurricane Nicole disrupts team schedule in Florida.

Connor Welsh
Lions de Trois-Rivières

Last week-end, the Lions de Trois-Rivières were scheduled to have a three-game weekend, but Hurricane Nicole scuttled those plans. The Lions travel schedule was thrown into a bit of disarray as they were originally scheduled to fly to Florida on Wednesday night from Newark, but their flight was ultimately cancelled, stranding the team in New Jersey until Friday evening.

Friday’s originally scheduled game against the Jacksonville Icemen was therefore postponed, and the Icemen instead played a game against the Orlando Solar Bears. No makeup date has yet been announced, but it remains to be seen whether or not the Lions will travel back to Florida a second time this season due to the constrained travel budget for the team.

Saturday night: Lions lose 5-2 to Jacksonville

Saturday’s game was a tale of one team playing a fourth game in five nights against another team that hadn’t played for a week and missed several practices due to the travel issues. Joe Vrbetic got the start for the Lions against the Jacksonville Icemen, the ECHL affiliate of the New York Rangers. Brennan Saulnier still had one more game to go in his two-game suspension, so he wasn’t in the lineup, but Brett Stapley and Riley McKay were back from being placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List for an unconfirmed case of COVID-19.

The Lions started the game very strong, quickly cycling the puck in the Icemen zone, and drew a penalty when a relentless Jonathan Joannette was taken down with a cross-check in front of the net. The Lions’ power play was ranked 14th at 19.2% in the ECHL, but it wasn’t going to help on this advantage. Trois-Rivières got one shot on the power play, and the tight checking Icemen wouldn’t allow another shot for another six minutes.

On the flipside, the Lions’ penalty kill was among the worst in the ECHL and Jacksonville’s power play feasted on it, scoring three times on four opportunities, including the opening goal of the game late in the first period.

Just as the books started to close on the opening frame, Alex Breton came off the bench, skated end-to-end from behind the Lions’ net, and tied it up on an incredible individual effort.

The Lions had a 90-second two-man advantage at the start of the second, but could not take advantage of the opportunity despite nearly constant possession during that time. Shortly afterward, Vrbetic made a big pad save to prevent a reversal of momentum. The period carried on with chances for both sides, with the Lions being the better team with the puck, and the Icemen being the better team away from the puck. The second period ended with Riley McKay taking an unnecessary elbowing penalty and then dropping the gloves.

The Icemen took the lead immediately in the first minute of the third period while McKay was still serving his minor, but Colin Bilek tied it up near the midpoint of the final period to level the game up.

A brutal 1:42 stretch for the Lions from the 12th minute helped the Icemen score three goals. The Lions’ defence completely fell apart, giving the Icemen a three-goal lead that would last all the way to the final whistle.

Icemen forward Travis Howe ruled the physicality in this game, frequently playing a very intimidating style, including bumping into Vrbetic at the end of the second period as the teams were headed off the ice. The Lions did not have any answer for Howe, however McKay did step up for his second fight of the game, but it did not go well. Howe played the role of old-school enforcer to perfection in this game.

Shots were low all night, with the Lions only having 10 shots on net after two periods.

Sunday afternoon: Lions beat Orlando 2-1

The Lions immediately fell into bad habits versus Orlando, taking a penalty within the first minute of play, killing it, then immediately taking another. Taking penalties combined with bad results in penalty-killing led to the Lions giving up the first goal of the game for a sixth straight time. Immediately after the goal was scored, Lions starter Philippe Desrosiers left the game with an undisclosed injury. Reviewing the video revealed that about a minute before the goal, Desrosiers grabbed his left knee or ankle after a whistle, and had a conversation with a concerned-looking Mathieu Brodeur.

Vrbetic came on in relief of Desrosiers who made five saves on six shots, marking the first time that Vrbetic essentially played both games in a back-to-back situation. He didn’t need to worry about being tested while cold, because the Lions didn’t give up another shot for five minutes, and only gave up three more all period long as they dominated the puck possession, but to no result.

Vrbetic made a big doorstep save early in the second period, and the Lions took over from there with a big power play, peppering shots on net, but Solar Bears goaltender Jack LaFontaine was making all sorts of big saves in the period, including two point-blank shots by Joannette.

The tying goal was inevitable, as the Lions were applying all sorts of pressure. On a rare shot on Vrbetic, Colin Bilek cleared the rebound, and skated the puck up ice, entered the Orlando zone without challenge and whipped the puck perfectly to score his team-leading sixth goal of the season.

The Lions scored a second goal when Anthony Beauregard intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and skated into the Orlando zone to establish a cycle with Saulnier, who passed the puck to the point to Brodeur. Brodeur shot the puck on target, with Beauregard standing at the side of the net to clean up the rebound.

The Lions then got some relief as Orlando got into penalty trouble, first taking a minor at the end of the second period, and then a few more penalties in the third to bring an end to any comeback attempt. Vrbetic made a save at the final buzzer on a shot from the slot to take the win.

I’m Watching You...

  • The Lions struggled in the faceoff dot against Jacksonville. They are able to control a lot of even strength opportunities, but they are missing the gamebreaker talent to take advantage of the possession.
  • Alex Breton is likely the best player for the Lions right now. His goal against the Icemen will be in consideration for the team’s goal of the year. Joe Vrbetic also becoming vital for the chances for Lions success this season.
  • Lions have only scored the first goal in three of their 10 games.
  • Trois-Rivières is last in the ECHL on the penalty kill at 66.7%.

Also

  • Jacksonville is the second-best-drawing team in the league, with an average of 8,369 fans per game. Orlando and the Florida Everblades each draw over 6,000. The state of Florida is definitely a good market for the ECHL.
  • Alexis D’Aoust has left Västerviks IK by mutual agreement. D’Aoust had one goal and one assist in 16 games, and neither side was happy with the results or the fit on the team. The Lions own D’Aoust’s ECHL rights should he decide to return to North America, but for now his agent confirmed that he’s talking with various teams in Europe for a new desitination.
  • The Lions also own the ECHL rights to Anthony Nellis and Luke Orysiuk, both of whom are currently playing in Europe. The deadline to return to the ECHL from Europe is February 15.
  • The Newfoundland Growlers sit atop the ECHL standings, undefeated in regulation after 11 games.
  • The Norfolk Admirals, opponents of the Lions this week on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, are on the opposite end of the spectrum, last in league standings with two points in 12 games. The move to the North Division has been disastrous for the ECHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes thus far this season. The Admirals will host the ECHL All-Star Classic this season on January 16.