It was first versus worst in the Ontario Hockey League's Eastern Conference — and it showed in the first 10 minutes on Sunday.
The Kingston Frontenacs looked every bit the part of a young, rebuilding, last-place team and the Niagara IceDogs looked every bit the part of a championship contender.
The IceDogs took full advantage of their shaky foes, scoring four goals in the opening 10 minutes to all but seal things up before the first intermission. A better effort in the final 40 minutes for the home side didn't reverse the final outcome as Niagara notched a 5-2 victory before an announced crowd of 2,692 at the K-Rock Centre.
“We came out scared to death because of the team we're playing,” Fronts coach Todd Gill said after the team's seventh loss (six in regulation) in a row. “You just have to look at the goals — mistakes that can't happen.”
Darren Keily, the Fronts' assistant coach, made a good point in a post-game chat. Aside from overage forward Conor Stokes, no one on the Fronts roster is used to playing these kind of minutes at this level this late in a season. That even holds true for star/overage netminder Igor Bobkov, who has played 3,175 minutes this season after going 1,048 last year with the London Knights.
None of this should be seen as making excuses for the Fronts (19-40-3-4), who simply have to raise their compete level to have a chance. But there's no denying that this is new territory for the bulk of the roster, which clearly is experiencing growing pains.
“A lot of them, they're not out of (physical) gas, but mentally they're out of gas,” Gill said. “They make plays and they'll come back and I'll say 'What were you thinking?' and they don't have an answer.”
“For everybody here, it's very mentally taxing on them. They've just hit that proverbial wall. Everything is going the wrong way for them. It's just mental exhaustion.”
Unfortunately, the schedule makers gave Kingston five straight home games to finish this long-lost season, not exactly a treat for the fans.
In the first three games of the season-ending homestand, the Frontenacs have been outscored 19-3.
To Kingston's credit, the team picked up its play after the ugly start on Sunday. A big hit by Stokes, Kingston's most energetic player and a guy who seems to be playing for a pro shot, seemed to be the momentum shifter as the Fronts got within two.
“Maybe there was (some intimidation early), but after the first 10 (minutes) we brought it back together and regrouped,” said rookie forward Ryan Kujawinski, who continues to look like a player to build around for the next few seasons.
Frontenacs. GM Doug Gilmour did well to get the Iroquois Falls native from the Sarnia Sting in the Ryan Spooner deal. Big Kujawinski, who has speed and power, scored on the power play and drew on assist on Warren Steele's goal to open the scoring for the
Eventually, however, a mistake did the Frontenacs in. Darcy Greenaway got caught up ice, leading to a 3-on-2 goal for the IceDogs to make it 5-2.
While the Frontenacs certainly improved in the last 40 minutes, there is a wide talent gap between them and the IceDogs, who outshot Kingston 52-22. If not for Bobkov, the IceDogs win the game by a larger margin.
“It seems all year the same thing we're trying to fix keeps getting us in trouble,” Gill said. “You can look at it as a lack of talent or a lack of know-how.”
In this case, a little of column A and a little of B. It's imperative for the younger players to learn from the mistakes and come back bigger, stronger and faster next year.
If that happens, the Frontenacs will be headed in the right direction. If not, it will be same old, same old for one of the least successful franchises in the league.
“What it comes right down to is next year, the guys who keep making the same mistakes won't be here,” Gill said. “They're all being evaluated for next year. If they can do it, they'll be here. If we don't think they can, they will be somewhere else.”
The IceDogs (44-18-0-3), winners of eight of their past 10, need just one point in their final three games to clinch first in the East and home-ice advantage for at least the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Alex Friesen, Andrew Agozzino, Tyler Petersen, Ryan Strome and David Pacan scored for Niagara on Sunday.
Frontenacs captain Cody Alcock returned to the lineup after missing the past three games with a shoulder injury. The scratches for Kingston were injured forward Jack Nevins, forward Spencer Green and defenceman Andrew Tessier. ... The Frontenacs host the Belleville Bulls on Friday night. The Bulls need one point in their final three games to secure a playoff spot, which would eliminate the Peterborough Petes.