Sabres sweep home pair from slumping ’Cats

A weekend showdown that looked like a handful on paper proved to be anything but as the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres manhandled the Thunder Bay Bearcats here.
The Sabres beat the third-place visitors 6-2 on Saturday night and then 4-3 on Sunday afternoon for their third sweep of the season—but first against an opponent with a winning record.
“All week we just talked about what it would take to beat this team,” Sabres’ head coach Wayne Strachan said.
“The players bought into it, and performed it to a ‘T’ out there in those two games,” he added.
The Sabres (14-15-3-3) boasted an overhaul in systems—notably a measured forecheck that kept the potent but failing Bearcats (22-14-0-0) in their place, with the visitors never managing a lead in either game.
Sunday afternoon’s win was the third in the row for the Sabres, and the fourth-consecutive loss for the Bearcats.
Strachan, who said the week before that earning just a split against Thunder Bay would be “a great feat,” said the big change was “paying attention to details” and taking more pride in team defence.
“This is a team, the Bearcats, that has two of the better lines in the league,” he noted. “For the most part, you gotta play to the players that play against them, and shut them down.”
While the Sabres did look fundamentally strong, they also carried an attitude wholly unlike when they split with the Bearcats in their last series against them here back in October.
Riding the momentum of a 6-4 win against the Fort William North Stars the previous weekend, the Sabres looked all but untouchable—with the Bearcats unable to score until the third period of either game.
On Saturday night, every odd-man rush looked potentially explosive, with the Sabres’ paths to the net too accessible as Fort Frances scored six unanswered goals before the Bearcats managed to save face with a late pair.
The moment that will stick in the fans’ memory, however, came in the last six seconds of Sunday afternoon’s match when Steven Sus broke a 3-3 tie, burying a rebound for the game-winner.
That’s when Bearcats’ captain Brad Pawlowski attacked Chris Sinclair, sparking a line brawl that drew both goalies into the mix after Ryan Faragher crossed the ice with the intention of pulling the 6’3” Pawlowski off of Sinclair, a full foot shorter.
“I wouldn’t fight unless I had a reason, and that was a reason,” Faragher said after the game, wearing the team’s MVP belt (appropriately a plastic wrestling title belt) after stopping 28 shots on Saturday and then 38 on Sunday.
Faragher said if seeing him fighting seemed odd to the fans, it was almost odder to him—he claimed the fight against rival Rene Berube was his first-ever in hockey, although he certainly looked capable.
He smiled and paused when asked which milestone was sweeter—his first SIJHL shutout, which came Jan. 5 against the Thunder Bay Bulldogs, or his first career fight.
“I dunno,” he replied. “The first shutout it was 15 saves . . . I think it’s pretty close.”
Sus, in his typically understated way, shared credit for the game-winner, scored amid a flurry of sticks and bodies in front of Berube, assisted by Alessio Tomassetti and Mike Ainsworth.
“I just packed it in,” Sus said.
He claimed even less involvement in what happened after. “We were just behind the net celebrating, and all of a sudden, Pawlowski just came flying in,” he recalled.
The line brawl was the culmination to a weekend that grew increasingly physical, with Mario Boivin and Graham Dyck each squaring off in the first game.
Dyck scrapped again on Sunday after a title bout between Logan McDonell and the 6’4”, 240-pound Steve Natywary that easily will contend for SIJHL fight of the year.
“They’re a high octane, offensive team,” said Sabres’ assistant captain Colin Spencer. “It was definitely a hard-fought battle on both sides.
“We went into this weekend looking for four points. That was our goal, and we’re happy to achieve it,” he added.
Emo native Luke Judson—a key cog in the Bearcats’ machine and a player who has given the Sabres fits in the past—was surprisingly ineffective, and at times even counterproductive, over the weekend here.
Judson was pointless in the first game of the series. And while he notched the tying goal Sunday, he seemed to spend more time in the penalty box than out, racking up three penalties (one of which resulted in a power-play goal) and a 10-minute misconduct for a check to the head in the second period.
A litany of suspensions will be handed out over the line brawl, including one to Faragher for jumping in after the first fight had broken out.
The Sabres had platooned Faragher and back-up David Novak until this month, when Faragher’s strong, confident play forced Strachan’s hand. His presence certainly will be missed.
Novak stopped the only shot he faced with three seconds on the clock after Faragher had been ejected after the fight. But his last real appearance saw him concede three goals on just 11 shots against the North Stars back on Jan. 11.
Strachan insisted, though, that Novak has his confidence.
“Dave’s a competitor,” Strachan said. “He wants to be in the net. He wants to be the guy to go to.
“This is an opportunity for when we need him to come up huge, and I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll be ready to play Friday night.”
The Sabres next host the cellar-dwelling Bulldogs (5-24-3-0) for a three-game series this weekend.
The team’s once-lofty goal of reaching the .500 mark by the end of the month looks to be a foregone conclusion, with Fort Frances only needing to win the series against the worst team in the league to break even.
Still, Strachan stressed the Sabres can’t underestimate the Bulldogs, especially with a handful of significant suspensions pending.
“By no means is it going to be easy,” he warned, calling them a young, “in-your-face” team—one that has allowed fewer goals on the season than the Sabres.
“If you kind of watch the Bulldogs over the last month, they’ve really started coming together,” Spencer noted, culminating in an upset 5-2 win over the league-leading Dryden Ice Dogs on Saturday.