By Sam Laskaris
The 2021-22 Clarington Eagles tasted defeat for the first time.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, who posted a perfect 4-0 record in exhibition play, their first setback occurred on Saturday night in their regular season opener as they were downed 5-2 by the host Little Britain Merchants.
The Merchants were able to score a pair of shorthanded goals in the second period to take a 4-2 lead and command of the Provincial Junior Hockey League match, staged at the Little Britain Community Centre.
The hosts also scored the lone goal of the third period, immediately after another Eagles’ powerplay had expired.
“This was a good team and a tough game on the road,” said Eagles’ head coach Dean Baumhauer. “They’ve got the two best players on the ice in (Riley) Girard and (Braydon) Leeking. I knew that coming in. They had their way with us, especially them killing penalties are just as dangerous as them playing 5-on-5.”
Girard joined the Merchants having spent three seasons at the Junior A level. He played two seasons in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) with the Pickering Panthers and another year with the Whitby Fury.
Leeking has four OJHL seasons under his belt, three with the Lindsay Muskies and one with Pickering.
“A lot of these kids haven’t seen that kind of talent yet and it was on display full throttle here in this game,” Baumhauer said of the Merchants’ offensive leaders.
Leeking scored once and added a pair of assists in the match while Girard also scored a goal and had one assist.
“I just thought we showed that we were young,” Baumhauer added of his squad, which has eight returning players from the Eagles’ last season, in 2019-20. “I thought we started good. And I thought some of our guys are still trying to find their legs.”
Baumhauer, however, was not thrilled with the actions of a couple of his rookies.
“We just showed a couple of immature plays where are younger guys got a 2 and 10 (minute) head shot and a stupid hit from behind penalty quite frankly,” he said. “That just can’t happen.”
The Eagles got onto the scoreboard first in Saturday’s outing when veteran forward Brent Lace fired a nifty backhander over Merchants’ goalie Oliver Webster in the sixth minute of the opening period.
Rookie Jordan Shaw scored Clarington’s only other goal in the game, after he sniped a one-timer, following a faceoff win, over Webster’s glove and into the back of the Little Britain net.
“I thought we came out pretty strong there and then we made a couple of mistakes on the powerplay that they capitalized on,” Lace said of his team’s efforts. “I think we have a young team but if we keep on working, I think we’ll start to find ourselves in the next couple of games.”
Lace felt several of his teammates were a bit anxious heading into Saturday’s tilt.
“For sure there was a lot of nerves,” he said. “For a lot of these guys it was their first game in junior. There were a couple of mistakes but over-all I thought for guys playing their first game of junior they played alright. They played pretty well.”
The Eagles will try to avenge the loss as they host the Merchants in their home opener this Thursday. The opening faceoff is scheduled for 7:20 p.m. at the Garnet B. Rickard Recreation Complex.
“I’m glad we get another crack at them on Thursday in our home opener,” Lace said. “And I think we should be able to have a better performance there.”