The Sudbury Wolves' February funk continued Feb. 23 as the team lost 5-3 to the visiting Barrie Colts at Sudbury Community Arena.
It marked the sixth loss in nine games in the month and leaves the Wolves holding onto a thread thin lead over its Central Division rivals for first place.
It also marked back-to-back losses to Barrie in a home-and-home series on Saturday and Sunday. It all adds up to a Wolves team that is searching for answers.
“There are no excuses for us,” Sudbury forward Nicholas Baptiste said. “We are better than this. It starts with our work ethic. Every guy on the team has to work harder. We have to play as a team. The goal is to get wins. This was a tough loss and it is hard to swallow. Our compete level has just not been there. We have to focus on it.”
The first 23 minutes of the game gave every indication the Wolves were going to tame the Colts. Sudbury took advantage of four straight Barrie penalties and built up a 3-1 lead by the 2:55 mark of the second period thanks to two power play goals.
Baptiste, Kevin Raine and Trevor Carrick scored for Sudbury. Baptiste and Carrick scored on the man advantage. Andrew Mangiapane scored late in the first period to help keep the Colts in the game.
It all went downhill at the 4:00 mark of the second period as Mangiapane stole the puck and scored to make it 3-2 for Sudbury. Moments later, Barrie’s Tyson Fawcett won a battle in front of the Sudbury net and scored to tie the game at 3-3.
Late in the middle frame, Barrie’s captain, Aaron Ekblad, showed why he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Ekblad took the puck off the boards and charged through traffic and scored from the slot to put Barrie ahead for the first time in the game and for good.
Barrie’s Brendan Lemieux sealed the deal with an empty net goal late in the third period. The win put the Colts just four points behind Sudbury in the Eastern Conference standings.
“We didn’t play well enough. We got out-worked,” Sudbury head coach Paul Fixter said. “It’s a team that was hungrier for a win than we were.”
The Wolves were missing key players from the line-up, including defensive stud Craig Duininck along with super sniper Nathan Pancel - both out due to upper body injuries.
The team also lost the services of forward Radek Faksa in the first period and he didn’t return. Faksa was limping on crutches after the game and will be re-evaluated Monday.
Fixter was not using injuries as an excuse, and he certainly wasn’t going to allow anyone else involved with the team use it either.
“Nobody really gives a crap about us,” Fixter said. “If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, don’t. Find a way. It’s about playing hard. Pull out all the clichés you want - injuries, you got this and that. Nobody cares.
“Find a way to get a win and pull together as a team and get it done. That is what it comes down to. It is a physical game. Injuries happen. I don’t care. We still have bodies. Everybody tells me they are good. Their agents tell me they are good. They must be pretty good, so show me.”
Sudbury managed to kill off all five penalties they earned, albeit two were only six seconds long because they came late in the third period. The Wolves power play struck for two goals on four chances.
The five-on-five play needs sharpening, especially shot selection. Fixter might be bringing guys to a firing range to improve their accuracy this week.
“We have to play more disciplined,” Fixter said. “Defensively, we give up way too many chances and stay away from stupid penalties. And you know what? Score when you get your chances. I’ve never seen a team miss the net by six feet from 10 feet. It’s a joke. Score. Find a way to score goals. Go out and perform.”
The Colts have been waiting for this moment in the season when they could close the gap on Sudbury. Barrie had been taking it on the chin from the Wolves in the regular season series prior to the weekend home-and-home matches. Sudbury had won four of the five previous meetings.
“The rivalry between Barrie and Sudbury is always intense,” Barrie forward Zach Hall said. “These are games everyone gets up for. We need these points.”
Sudbury is right back in action Feb. 24 as they host the Erie Otters at 7 p.m. It is a make-up game for the game cancelled Feb. 21 at Sudbury Community Arena due to unsafe ice conditions. The Wolves also host the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
“Right now, we are not in a good state,” Sudbury assistant captain Mathew Campagna said. “No one is going to pull us up except for ourselves. It is on us. We have to get ourselves back on track and it starts with competing harder.”
The game’s three stars were: Andrew Mangiapane (first), Zach Hall (second) and Kevin Raine (third).
Sudbury scratched Craig Duininck, Connor Burgess, Conor Cummins and Nathan Pancel.
Barrie scratched Josh Carrick, Joseph Blandisi and Mitchell Theoret.