CORNER BROOK Ben Fitzgerald thought his team played its best hockey in the first period of the season opener against the Clarenville Caribous, but the rest of the weekend set left him realizing there is a lot of work to be done.
The head coach of the Western Royals loved the way his team stuck to the game plan of intense, physical hockey against a fleet-footed opponent that boasts being the defending Allan Cup champions as the top senior hockey team in Canada. He just wished his players carried the same grit and determination throughout the weekend that saw the Royals lose 7-5 and 6-2 at the Hodder Memorial Recreation Complex.
“The first period in Saturday night’s game was something to be proud of and the rest of it shows we have work to do from goaltending right on out,” Fitzgerald said.
The Royals entered the season with a roster built for the small confines of the Hodder with size and grit foremost on the minds of management. The idea is to make life miserable for opposing teams by playing hard-hitting hockey and Fitzgerald believes he has the charges to do so.
“It will be up to players to buy into that, but beyond that weekend the margin for allowing fellas to not play that system will be very, very minimal,” he said.
The Royals revamped roster included four new imports — two forwards and two defenceman — who made their debut with the team in the two-game set against the Caribous.
Fitzgerald said the team has been looking for a sniper to provide offence and the franchise hope they found their man in import Brett Morrison of Sydney, N.S. Morrison was held off the scoresheet in the first two games and didn’t stand out one way or another, but it’s no secret the Royals expect the slick-skating forward to cause nightmares for opposing goalies.
“We expect big things from Morrison,” he said. “He didn’t have his greatest weekend but, in fairness to him, there’s a lot of pressure on him. I think he knows that and feels that.”
Mathieu Berube, a former AUS player, moved to the province to take a job in the Bay St. George area as a school teacher and signed an import card.
Berube was one of the more energetic and physical players for the Royals in the weekend series, but coach Fitzgerald was quick to point out that the team expects him to make a contribution on the scoresheet simply based on his status as an import.
“It will be interesting to see where that goes, but we’re hoping for the best on it,” he said.
Big and rugged journeyman former pro Nathan Saunders was brought in to add to the team’s physical presence and experience on the backend, while Nathan Welton brings to the team an ability to join the rush and move the puck quickly to forwards flying down the wings.
Fitzgerald is OK with the mobility and soft hands Welton brings to the team, but he wants to see him to watch the turnovers like the rest of the team, which he felt were very costly to the team on opening weekend.
He believes Saunders will be a great addition, but cautions that the big guy has to work on his conditioning to be the effective player he expects he will be with the team.
“He needs to get himself in game-shape and I think the result will be a good hockey player in the long run,” he said. “He admittedly needs to get himself in game-shape so I think there’s no mystery to that. He’s got some great hands and he brings a presence to the ice every time he’s on there. He keeps the other teams aware.”
Fitzgerald believes in giving a player a chance to prove his worth, but the players already know there is a small window of opportunity to impress the right people.
“We’re looking at the first six games as their opportunity to prove they belong here for the remaining 18 games and playoffs,” he said.
Despite two losses at home to start the season, Fitzgerald said the mood in the dressing room was pretty upbeat, but it was too early for the players to give a report card on themselves.
“I think every guy there seen no panic, but they realize they all have to be better and got to buy in otherwise we’re not going to have the success we can have,” he said.
The Royals are idle this weekend as the Gander Flyers play host to the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts for two games, while the Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars will travel to the Clarenville Events Centre for two games against the defending champion Caribous.
The Royals will host the Clarenville Caribous for two games next weekend at the Hodder Memorial Recreation Complex.