WATERTOWN — What the Watertown Wolves franchise has promoted as its “new era” was launched Friday night in a 4-2 win against the Elmira Enforcers in a preseason game, with veteran forward Justin MacDonald leading the way.
After MacDonald assisted on Tyler Bullard’s power-play goal in the first period, he scored a goal in the second period to spark the Wolves to the victory without spectators at Watertown Municipal Arena.
“You could tell there was a little bit of nervous energy out there,” said MacDonald, who added an assist in the third period for a three-point night. “I thought there was going to be a little adjustment getting into it, the boys haven’t played in close to a year, right? So it’s just about the timing and every player figuring out what he does out there. Timing is something you can’t practice, it’s all about playing games.”
It was the Wolves’ Federal Prospects Hockey League’s first game in 10-plus months after the 2019-20 season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, the Wolves have a new coach in Brent Clarke, a former Watertown coach, as well as a new owner in Andreas Johansson.
The game was the first preseason game in the league this year and the two teams will open the regular season at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Watertown.
“It was good, with the guys just skating before it’s going to take some time to get everything going,” Clarke said. “But it was a good first game. But we’ve got to get better, though.”
Friday’s game also represented the first game in the FPHL since the two teams met March 12.
The 2020-21 regular season, which usually begins in early November, has been postponed several times since.
The Wolves, wearing their new blue and gray jerseys, struck first as Bullard scored a power-play goal 11 minutes, 19 seconds by batting in a MacDonald rebound and Fred Hein also assisted.
“So there was a lot of nervous energy, a lot of excitement. It took the boys a little bit to get their feet under them. But all in all, you can’t be happier,” Bullard, a former SUNY Canton player, said.
Former Wolves and Enforcers goalie Cody Porter started the game for Watertown, stopping all 16 shots he faced before fellow veteran goalie Nick Neidert entered the game midway through the second period.
Watertown led 2-0 as MacDonald took a feed from defenseman Braedyn Asselstine and beat goalie Christopher Pascal on a blast from the right side with 4:37 left in the middle period.
MacDonald played for the Wolves in their first season in 2014-15, and Hein now serves as team captain after he was acquired by Watertown from Danville in the offseason.
Niedert, a former Wolves and Watertown Privateers goalie, made 11 saves on 13 shots faced to earn the victory.
“I thought we had a lot of good reps in from certain guys, I thought everybody was pretty good,” Clarke said. “But we had some penalty trouble on a few miscues, but it’s just working out first-game kinks.”
“It was a good team win, it’s always good to start the season off, even though it’s only an exhibition, with a win,” MacDonald said. “It makes it much easier to go from there.”
After Elmira pulled within 2-1 on Brendan Hussey’s goal 23 seconds into the third period, Watertown forward Josh Koepplinger scored a goal with 8:30 left to restore the two-goal lead.
Just before the Wolves’ third goal, Watertown killed off a four-minute double-minor penalty. After Elmira’s Evgenii Demin scored a power-play goal with 4:59 left and rookie Parker Evans-Campbell added an empty-net goal with 17.2 seconds left.
“We haven’t even really worked too much on the PK, we have touched on it, but that kill was good to see,” Clarke said.
Saturday and Sunday’s preseason games in Elmira will also be played without fans, as well as currently all regular-season games.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to know that we’re playing,” Bullard said. “It starts with our leadership and our leadership starts with our ownership and it also starts with coach Clarke. They’ve done everything in their power to make sure that we’re going to go, we’re going to play. We’re obviously taking all the necessary precautions and they are as excited as the guys are.”
On Friday, the league released a regular-season schedule between Watertown and Elmira that is listed through the end of February. The 16-game slate is entirely between the two teams, with Watertown hosting eight games.
After the season opener, the Wolves will host the Enforcers at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with games at Elmira on Friday and Saturday.
“Hopefully on Wednesday there are no issues and we can continue and sooner than later we can get some fans, that would be nice,” Clarke said.
Each week will include four games in four days, also with Watertown hosting games Feb. 11-12, Feb. 20-21 and 25-26.
Johansson said he hopes games will be added to the schedule for March. He also remains hopeful that the other teams in the league — Danville, Port Huron, Carolina and Columbus — will be able to play at some point this season.