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Junior hockey: Vrees leads Fighting Spirit to win in season opener

LEWISTON — The L/A Fighting Spirit opened their second NA3HL season at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee on Saturday night with a young team and a veteran goal scorer eager to set the tone.

Dylan Vrees scored a pair of goals to lift the Fighting Spirit over the Skylands Kings, 3-1.

L/A outshot Skylands, which had just 11 skaters available, 28-19.

“It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take the ‘W,'” L/A coach Rod Simmons said. “This is the youngest team we’ve ever had. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Spirit’s leading scorer last year, Vrees picked right up where he left off, scoring both of his goals in the first period.

“We always want to start off on the right foot, and the boys did a good job tonight getting it going for our first win,” said Vrees, of Plaistow, N.H. “I definitely want to get the guys going, make sure they know how to win and succeed and follow Coach Rod’s system. As long as they buy in, we’ll have a good hockey team.”

Simmons said it’s important for veterans such as Vrees to set the tone for the young team, “but they’ve just got to realize they don’t have to do everything and take too much responsibility on their shoulders.”

Vrees took responsibility for breaking the seal on the 2016-17 season at 3:55 when he broke out on a 2-on-1 with Matt Siegel. Skating in on the left wing, Vrees fired just before reaching the top of the circle and beat Skylands goalie Mathias Yttereng far post.

“I saw high-glove open, and Siegel was doing his job going right to the net,” Vrees said. “I knew if there was a rebound he was going to put it home, so I just let it go.”

Skylands tied it a little more than four minutes later on a goal by Jan Broz, but L/A, which outshot the Kings 13-6 in the period, responded by turning up the pressure on Yttereng (25 saves).

The Kings goalie seemed up to the challenge when he made two stops on Crewz Berry from point-blank range, then made a fine glove save to rob Clifford Ogle.

L/A patiently waited for its next chance, which came when Siegel skated behind the net with the puck, then found Vrees all alone in the slot for a one-timer that made it 2-1 at 13:01 of the first period.

“I think we started a little tentative,” Skylands coach Alex Shingelman said. “For the guys, it was their first time in this arena. We didn’t play to the game plan and didn’t execute. We started to deliver better execution and puck movement in the third period, and it showed.”

Kyle Secord added the insurance goal at 6:54 of the second period.

Vrees, who served a 10-minute game misconduct penalty in the second period, had a couple of good chances at collecting an opening night hat trick in the third period. The first came midway through the period as he skated in on a short-handed breakaway, only to have Yttereng poke the puck away.

The second came after the Kings pulled Yttereng in the final minute. Vrees missed right on a shot from the right wing.

“The empty-netter was pretty bad, but I’ll take the two goals,” Vrees said.

L/A goalie Zack Barry made 18 saves, perhaps none more important when he made a pad stop to deny Eric Vanderhoff on a breakaway that could have pulled the Kings within a goal with four minutes to go.

Simmons hoped to take advantage of the Spirit’s numbers advantage, but lack of discipline kept them from having as many skaters available for much of the night.

“When we take penalties we shouldn’t be taking, it certainly doesn’t allow us to use the few more guys that we have. It cuts us short and puts us right down to their numbers,” he said. “It’s going to take a month or two for us to get our young guys used to the junior game and realize there are things they can get away with and things they can’t.”

The Spirit were 0-for-6 on the power play, the Kings 0-for-5.

The two teams meet again at 2 p.m. Sunday at Colisee.

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