Wolves return to play after hiatus, but fall to Dashers

Watertown, NY - On a night of pomp and circumstance in which the Watertown Wolves’ 2014-15 Federal Hockey League championship team was honored, in the end it was the visiting squad that left celebrating.

Prior to the game, the league’s Commissioner’s Cup made an appearance and the Wolves championship banner was unveiled on the league’s opening night at the refurbished Watertown Municipal Arena.

Then the Danville Dashers promptly pounced on Watertown by scoring three unanswered goals in the first period and went on to hold on for a 3-2 victory in an FHL clash before a crowd of 1,043.

“It was awesome,” Wolves winger Jeremy Akeson said of the opening-night atmosphere. “To have the support of the community like this, shame on us for not putting in a best effort in the first 20 minutes.”

After the opening ceremonies, it was Danville that built the early momentum against the Wolves, who didn’t include one player from the 2014-15 championship team.

The Dashers, who lost to Watertown in the 2015 FHL finals, jumped on the Wolves by scoring a pair of power-play goals in the first 12 minutes of the game.

“You’ve got to give credit to Danville, they really took it to us in the first period,” Akeson said. “For some of our guys, this is their first pro hockey experience, so hopefully we’ll learn from this.”

After being shutout in the first two periods, Watertown closed to within one on a goal each from Akeson and John Schiavo with 11:41 remaining in the game.

“It’s the first game of 56 games,” Watertown coach Phil Esposito said. “Nobody thought we were going to go 56-0, but I was just happy with our effort in the third period, battling back again. In the third, we played really well and we had some good opportunities.”

Akeson broke Danville’s shutout bid by scoring 1:30 into the third period on a partial breakaway as he lifted a backhander over goalie Troy Passingham.

Schiavo pulled Watertown to within 3-2 as he scored from the slot, finishing off a pass from Michael Beranek at 8:19 of the period.

“You can’t back off against a good hockey team and I give them a lot of credit with what they did,” Danville coach Steve Harrison said. “We learned a lesson tonight and finished them off, but it was tight near the end.”

With Wolves goalie Ed Zdolskek (38 saves) pulled for an extra attacker with 1:16 remaining, Passingham denied Brownville native and defenseman Brian Marks’ drive with 57.7 seconds left and made a save on a rebound with 22 seconds left.

“That kid over there is a good goalie,” Esposito said of Passingham (42 saves). “He played in the OHL and stuff like that and he comes with a good resume. You have to give him credit.”

The Wolves went scoreless on six power plays on the night, including a pair of man advantages in the final period.

“We’ve got to score on our opportunities,” Esposito said. “We had some chances on the power play, but we couldn’t bury the puck.”

Watertown outshot Danville, 21-9 in the third period, but Passingham didn’t allow a goal the rest of the way.

His team’s effort and the end result didn’t leave Esposito totally displeased.

“We’ve got work to do,” Esposito said. “I’ve got three or four guys in our locker room that got off a plane this morning, so there are guys who haven’t even practiced with us yet. So it’s one of the scenarios where we’re going to get better from here, we’re not going to get worse.

“So we’ll be fine going forward.”

After Justin Brausen finished off a centering pass from Daniel Turgeon only two minutes, 54 seconds into the game for a 1-0 lead, Michael Harris stuffed in a rebound inside an open left goal post just as the Dashers’ second power-play expired at 11:47 for a 2-0 advantage.

Danville led 3-0 as defenseman Easton Oliver floated a drive past Zdolshek with 4:21 remaining in the first period.

“It’s not the start that we wanted, obviously,” Akeson said. “But it’s the beginning of the season, everyone’s coming from different programs and systems. The think we have to take out of it is the way we played in the last 20 minutes and build off that.”

But he bounced back and didn’t yield a goal on 19 shots faced over the final 40 minutes.

Watertown also couldn’t capitalize on a pair of power plays in the middle period, including 1:36 of a 5-on-3 man advantage.

The Wolves franchise, which won the FHL title in its first season in the league, returned this year after it was dormant last season while renovations on the Fairgrounds arena were completed.

“I think it’s great,” Akeson added. “The last time they were here, they won a championship, so there’s high expectations as there should be.”