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by Zac Hirschbeck / Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo-native Stephen Dhillon made 11 saves in relief on Wednesday (Photo by Bill Wippert)

The Niagara IceDogs slow start to the 2014-15 season continued on Wednesday night with a 8-4 loss to the Connor McDavid-led Erie Otters at First Niagara Center.

Prior to taking on the now 9-0-0-1 Otters, the IceDogs record unfairly reflected the on-ice product that Niagara was continuing to put forth. In the seven losses prior to Erie, Niagara’s goal differential was only minus-five. In fact, five of Niagara’s previous seven losses were one-goal games. Unfortunately that trend did not continue on Wednesday.

Although Niagara was able to come from behind twice in the opening period to tie the game at 1-1 and 2-2, the IceDogs were unable to slow down the potent Erie attack. After surrendering four first period goals, Niagara surrendered two more in the second, and two more in the third.

“One team played very well tonight and one team didn’t. I don’t think we were a very good hockey team the majority of the game,” Niagara head coach Marty Williamson said after the game. “Erie and Connor McDavid made us pay tonight.”

Despite the losing effort, the IceDogs (2-8-0-0) received yet another strong effort from a pair of second-year players in defenseman Vince Dunn and winger Graham Knott. Both Dunn and Knott, who are eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, added to their season totals against Erie. Dunn picked up an assist on Cody Payne’s first period goal, and Knott scored his fifth goal of the season in the third period. Knott also added an assist on Jordan Maletta’s second goal of the night in the third.

“Dunn and Knott have both really stepped up for us this year so far. Knott has gotten stronger and is contributing for us offensively,” Williamson said. “And Dunn has really become a leader for us on the backend despite only being in his second year. It’s a big year for both of them and they are both working hard every night to improve.”

Dunn, who led all IceDogs defenseman a season ago in points with 33 (5+28) in 63 games, now has six points (2+4) this season. Although Dunn’s name has yet to appear on the radar of national media and draft pundits, he will look to follow in the footsteps of drafted teammates Blaine Siebenaler (taken 77th overall in 2014 by Columbus), Aaron Haydon (154th overall in 2014 by Dallas) and Ryan Mantha (104th overall in 2014 by the Rangers).

Meanwhile, Knott has started the new season producing at a far higher rate than he did last year. During his first season with the Ice Dogs, Knott tallied 22 points (8+14) in 64 games. With his two points on Wednesday, Knott is now tied for the team lead in points with nine (4+5) and has been a steady offensive force despite the team’s lackluster record.

Knott believes his increase in production stems from a greater sense of self-belief.

“I think I’m just more confident this year. I want to make plays and I want the puck on my stick,” Knott said. “Last year I was scared to get the puck and I was scared to get hit. Now that I understand the speed of the game, I’m much more comfortable.”

While Niagara’s coaching staff and players will hesitate to attribute the slow start to merely one player, the IceDogs unquestionably miss last year’s leading goal scorer Brendan Perlini. The 12th overall pick by Arizona in the 2014 NHL Draft, Perlini broke his hand while participating in the Coyotes’ annual rookie camp in September.

“We’re really missing Perlini on our power play,” Williamson said. “When you’re playing in as many one-goal games as we are, you really need a good power play. When Perlini comes back it’ll give us another weapon offensively that other teams will have to worry about.”

As the team moves forward, Williamson also believes the team needs to make strides defensively in order to right the ship.

“We need to work on our team defense and we need to stay out of the penalty box,” Williamson said. “Right now we’re just giving up too many goals compared to the offense that we’re producing.”

One other Niagara item of note in the loss: Buffalo-native and Buffalo Regals product Stephen Dhillon relieved starting goaltender Brent Moran late in the second period. After taking over in net, Dhillon made 11 saves on 13 shots against.

The IceDogs next see action tonight at 7 p.m. against Kingston at the Meridian Centre in downtown St. Catharines.

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