Sabres claw back above .500 mark

Short by almost half a team for one game, and facing a determined Thunder Bay Bulldogs’ squad, the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres earned a sweep over the weekend here and fulfilled their goal to attain at least a .500 record by the end of January.
Friday night’s 4-2 win, coupled with Saturday’s 6-4 victory, made for the Sabres’ second-consecutive sweep and extended their winning streak to five games.
“[Head coach] Wayne [Strachan] settled the goal at the start of the month. We didn’t want to be, we had to be .500 at the end of the month,” captain Quinn Amiel said.
“We didn’t make it easy on ourselves.”
The Sabres went into Friday night’s game with just 15 players available due to a swath of suspensions and injuries stemming from an altercation the previous weekend when Thunder Bay Bearcats’ captain Brad Pawlowski jumped Sabres’ forward Chris Sinclair after the game-winning goal with just six second left on the clock.
Those watching the game from the stands read more like a list of all-star invitees than roster scratches, with the likes of Alessio Tomassetti, Mike Ainsworth, Ryan Faragher, Mike Parisien, Colin Spencer, and Chad Reynolds sitting in centre-ice seats in suits along with Strachan, who garnered a two-game suspension after the Bearcat series.
But even with that significant handicap, the Sabres managed a win in both games—and trailed for just a mere 30 seconds all weekend. Still, they looked worse for the wear.
The squad appeared inattentive Saturday night and simply ran out of gas Friday—letting the Bulldogs whittle away at a 3-0 lead to a mere goal in the third period before Amiel scored an empty-netter to ice the victory.
“We were a little gassed in the third period, but they did their jobs,” Strachan said of his players. “It was obviously tough for them to roll with the short bench, but to win was a feat for us.”
No one looked more worn than Amiel, who turned his game upside-down to perform as the Sabres’ engine Friday night.
Moving from his spot on left wing to centre, the captain’s sole focus was to cut through the Thunder Bay defence and control the puck past the blueline before allowing linemates to focus on finishing the job with Amiel behind the play.
While the move took the Sabres’ most potent scoring weapon out of their hands, the extra focus on Amiel allowed Sinclair the room to net a pair and Mitch Cain to nab the eventual game-winner.
“I was looking forward to it until we actually had to play,” Amiel laughed, referring to the rash of suspensions.
“You know going in I can’t play the game I want to play,” meaning eliminating hard, fast breaks to the net from the equation in favour of some cautious, two-way hockey.
“Getting into the play wasn’t at the top of my list,” Amiel added.
With only two true lines and a pair of 10-minute misconducts tagged to Mario Boivin and Shaun Egan in the first period, as well as a game misconduct assessed to Rod Bouchard in the second, the double shifting took its toll on the team by the third, Amiel said.
“The third period was pretty bad,” he admitted. “We were sitting in the room in second intermission just looking at each other.”
“It was hard,” Sinclair agreed. “We got ’er done, though.”
As hard as it was for the guys on the ice pulling double duty, it was plenty difficult for the Sabres watching from the stands, too.
“It was a hard one to watch there. It was a boring game. Hair pulling,” said Tomassetti. “It’s hard to play against these guys.”
While the Sabres had a fuller roster Saturday night, the Bulldogs put up a stronger fight—and even managed a brief lead on a power-play goal by resident scorer Drew Childs before Amiel knotted the score at 2-2 just 30 seconds later.
While Strachan put a good face on the situation, citing the advantage of seeing the action from a different perspective, he remained realistic.
“It was tough. I’m not going to try and pretend it wasn’t,” Strachan said. “Especially when we went down 2-1. It was hard to watch.
“Actually, I had to leave for a minute,” he added. “I came back and we had scored . . . I had to ask [myself] whether I should watch the game or not.”
Amiel, back on the wing, scored a pair of goals and an assist in Saturday’s game. Brendan Baumgartner netted a pair of his own, with Sinclair and Steven Sus responsible for the other goals.
The Sabres (16-15-3-3) haven’t had trouble with the league-worst Bulldogs (5-26-3-0) all season, but were concerned due to their injuries and suspensions depleting the roster, especially after news spread throughout the league that the scrappy Bulldogs had bested the first-place Dryden Ice Dogs 5-2 the previous weekend.
While the Sabres managed to close in on the third-place Bearcats, who lost a pair to Schreiber over the weekend, they haven’t distanced themselves from the fifth-ranked Diesels.
Even with the Sabres’ recent streak, they’re only the second-hottest team in the SIJHL, with the Diesels having won every game since their aborted folding over the Christmas break.
“It’s definitely going to be a race. Since they’ve started playing again, they’ve been winning, too,” Strachan noted. “We know what it’s going to take to accomplish our goal [of finishing fourth on the regular season].”
The Sabres, meanwhile, can go two games over .500 when they face the Ice Dogs (28-9-0-1) here tonight at 7:30 p.m.
While it’s been a month-and-a-half since their last meeting (a 5-2 loss Dec. 19), the Sabres know they can’t be taken seriously as a contender in this league with an 0-7 record against the SIJHL’s best.
“This is just to get it into our heads that we can do it ’cause that 0-7 record sticks out,” Amiel said. “We have to beat them once just to prove to ourselves that they’re beatable.
“I mean, the Bulldogs beat them.”
“It’s gonna take a full 60 minutes on Wednesday, for sure,” Tomassetti stressed, adding a few key Ice Dogs will need to be kept in check for the Sabres to win.
“[Colin] McIntosh and [Marlon] Gardiner. They’re deadly on the power play, all around,” Tomassetti said, before adding, “I’m sure we got guys that can do that, too.”
Still, this team has shown definite progress since their last meetings with the Ice Dogs. Since acquiring Sus and Sinclair at the Dec. 1 roster deadline, the Sabres have lost just three of 13 games.
“I don’t think we have to change anything from what we’ve done in the last two weeks, three weeks,” Strachan said. “Dryden’s got a lot of skill up front, but . . . I don’t think they’re that much further ahead of us as a team.”