Wolves to rely on scoring depth

Line of Robinson, Gilhula, Manikis were key contributors last weekend

Kosta Manikis, right, of the Sudbury Wolves, attempts to skate around Giancarlo Chanton, of the Niagara IceDogs, during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday November 8, 2019. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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The Sudbury Wolves’ top-line threats, such as Matej Pekar and David Levin, were certainly expected to lead the way offensively with Quinton Byfield out of the lineup last weekend.

And lead they did, with Pekar scoring three times in a win over Barrie, then Levin adding a hat trick of his own in a romp over the Niagara IceDogs.

But to really thrive while their leading scorer nursed a wrist injury — one that’s expected to keep him out of the lineup again this weekend — the Wolves needed more than just one line to produce.

The trio of Owen Robinson, Owen Gilhula and Kosta Manikis apparently got that memo. Robinson had two goals and four assists, while Manikis and Gilhula collected one goal and two helpers each in the back-to-back victories, which earned the Wolves some much-needed breathing room ahead of both Mississauga and Barrie atop the OHL Central Division standings.

They’d like to create even more space with a win over the Sarnia Sting, who visit Sudbury Community Arena on Friday at 7:05 p.m., as well as victories over the IceDogs, whom the Wolves visit on Sunday at 2 p.m., and Peterborough Petes, their opponents for a Family Day contest at 2:05 p.m.

For Manikis, whose own injuries have limited him to 35 games this season, a chance to become a consistent contributor has been more than welcome.

“It hasn’t been the ideal year with injuries and everything, and that was frustrating, but I’m just hoping to stay healthy here in the second half and to keep going,” said the 18-year-old Toronto native, just prior to practice on Thursday afternoon. “We had a great weekend as a line and we just have to keep going from there.

“I just have to play a full 200. I think my play without the puck has improved a lot under the coaches here, they have taught me to play in the D zone, and I think playing physical, I can get more in the game. Playing with confidence in general, I think that helped me a lot this past weekend. I got an opportunity and I had confidence with it, so it went well.”

The arrangement has also agreed with Gilhula, whose own junior career has been interrupted by several stays in sick bay, but has now begun to hit the score sheet with regularity. The 19-year-old from Stratford, Ont. has five points in his last five games, and topped the 10-goal plateau for the first time as an OHLer with the opening tally against Niagara last weekend — the fourth time this season that he has scored the inaugural marker. Among Sudbury skaters, only Blake Murray, with five, and Byfield, with four, have as many icebreakers.

“It felt good,” Gilhula said. “We were kind of clicking all weekend and the last couple weeks, we have been kind of flying, so hopefully, that continues. With Q out for a couple of weeks, someone has to step up and I think our line can do it.

“To put numbers up always feels good, but just helping the team win and contributing that way, it feels really good, and we’re just hoping to continue that.”

Sudbury head coach Cory Stillman approves of that approach. He’s always happy to see his players rewarded statistically, but even more so when it’s a result of playing well within their system.

“It’s unfortunate to lose Quinton last weekend and I don’t think he’s going to be playing this weekend, either, but we had guys step up, our older guys are getting a chance, and I think Friday in Oshawa, we started to play better as a team, and it continued on Saturday and Sunday,” Stillman said. “We’re hoping to see the same thing this weekend.

“Robinson, Gilhula and Manikis have been really good. They’re playing with an identity and the way we would like them to play, supporting the puck, supporting each other, really having a defensive mind first, which is creating turnovers to score goals, but again, it’s one weekend and we need them to continue to do that this weekend.”

Owen Gilhula, right, of the Sudbury Wolves, attempts to elude Josh Wainman, left, and Matthew Papais, of the Guelph Storm, during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday January 31, 2020. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

Lines could change, too, with Byfield still out, but winger Nolan Hutcheson ready to return from an upper-body injury. Defenceman Kalle Loponen is also expected to return for Friday’s tilt.

Though the Sting and IceDogs are languishing near the bottoms of their respective divisions, the Wolves can ill afford to take their opponents lightly and risk giving up key points in such a tight race for top spot in the Central.

“We have no off weekends and there are no off games,” Stillman said. “Coming down the stretch here, we need to win, we need to win at home on Friday night, but I think more important is playing together as a team and competing, competing for 60 minutes. When we do that, we’re a good hockey team, but we have had lulls in our games where we get scored on, then we want to open it up and we give up more shots and they end up in the back of the net, so we have a system we want to play, a style that we need to play, and we need to do it for 60 minutes.”

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Gilhula and his teammates are focused more on their own play than what the Sting will bring to Friday’s contest.

“We’re doing a lot of video today and we’ll do some more tomorrow, so we’ll be ready, but right now, we’re more worried about us,” Gilhula said.

“Every game is important, we know that, and we have to come into it like it’s a playoff game. That’s out mind set. It’s a big weekend this weekend, so we’re looking forward to it.”

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson

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