Sabres gear for key showdown with Diesels

Mitch Calvert

A pair of losses to the Fort William North Stars here Friday and Saturday is forcing the Fort Frances Jr. Sabres to win at least two of their final three regular-season games in order to maintain their hold on third place in the SIJHL standings and a date with the last-place Sioux Lookout Flyers in the quarter-finals.
Heading into last night’s game against the visiting Flyers (the outcome wasn’t known by press time), the Sabres (27-17-3) sat just two points up on Schreiber after the Diesels beat the Thunder Bay Bearcats on Saturday.
The Sabres welcome the Diesels to town for a pair of games tomorrow and Friday to wrap up the regular season, needing to win at least one of those two meetings to assure themselves of a first-round meeting with the Flyers.
The Diesels then would meet the fifth-place Dryden Ice Dogs in the other quarter-final series.
The top two seeds—the Bearcats and North Stars—have first-round byes.
“We are in third and hold our own destiny,” Sabres’ head coach Wayne Strachan remarked. “We have put ourselves in this predicament and only we can help our own cause now.
[Thursday’s game] will be the biggest game of our season,” he stressed. “Playoff game No. 1 so to speak, with the winner getting third place.
“The Diesels have been playing well as of late and will be coming with one thought in mind, to beat us and gain more momentum into the playoffs,” Strachan added. “We will need to play our best 120 minutes of the season [tomorrow] and Friday to beat Schreiber.”
“We’ve just got to come out hard, be ready to play, and start battling to get ready for the playoffs,” agreed Sabres’ forward Kalib Thunderchief. “It could come down to winning both of those games to see who takes third place at the end of the season.
“They beat the North Stars earlier [last] week and it’s a whole new ball game at this time of year.”
The Sabres suddenly are reeling after 6-3 and 5-2 losses to the North Stars over the weekend—where penalties and mental lapses cost them against the league’s top-ranked squad.
Fort Frances actually led 1-0 after one period Friday night on a goal by Brendan Baumgartner, but the North Stars scored four unanswered ones in the second, including three on the power play.
“On Friday, penalties killed us whether they were warranted or not,” Strachan noted. “Even myself, my emotions got too high and I took a bad penalty that started the parade to the box [in the second period].
“Unacceptable on my part, and I take full blame.
“On the other hand, some calls were very marginal and the ref ruined the game,” Strachan added. “They scored four goals when we had three players on the ice.”
Joel Langevin notched three goals (including one into an empty net) to pace the North Stars to victory while Jordan Davis, Michael MacDonald, and Trevor Gamache added singles.
Baumgartner, with his second of the game, and Chris Sinclair each scored in the third for the Sabres, but the 4-1 deficit after 40 minutes was too much to overcome.
It also was one period that cost the Sabres on Saturday night as a rough opening 20 minutes resulted in a 3-0 hole.
“We didn’t have any effort in the first period. It was a bad effort on all parts and we gave them a three-goal lead,” Strachan lamented.
“Five on five, when we battle and compete, we can play with everyone, but if we are not going to work and play good defence, it is going to make for a long couple of weeks,” he warned.
Davis opened Saturday’s onslaught with a pinpoint pass onto the stick of Mitch Forbes in the slot, who somehow snuck the puck past goalie Ryan Faragher for a 1-0 lead.
Kelin Ainsworth added to the lead when Langevin made a great pass from the corner, then Mike Salter pounced on a rebound off a point shot and blasted one in after pinching in from his point to close out the first-period scoring.
The Sabres found their legs in the second and the checking line was rewarded when Thunderchief notched his first goal in eight games.
“We were cycling really well and moving it around quick, and it just kind of happened for our line,” Thunderchief said of he and linemates Colin Moberly and Graham Dyck.
“When Moberly first showed up to the team, we were put together and have played like we’ve been together all year and gelled really well,” he noted.
Cody Fraser got that one back for the Stars before the end of the second period, however, before Gamache and Baumgartner traded goals in the third to round out the scoring.
Baumgartner scored his third in the two-game series short-handed when Sinclair’s slapshot went wide and caromed off the end boards behind the net out to him during a two-on-one rush.
Thunderchief stressed the Sabres need to focus on being prepared to play a full 60 minutes right from the drop of the puck if they hope to have any success in the playoffs.
“We need to be more prepared. We had a slow start at the beginning,” Thunderchief said of Saturday night’s effort. “I was battling the puck and guys weren’t feeling it, and finally the second period rolls around and we get our legs.
“We need to come prepared in the first period. We can beat [the North Stars] five-on-five but when you run into penalty trouble, that’s when you fall down.”
Strachan said they need to get back to doing the simple things which helped propel them to a four-game win streak prior to last weekend.
“We have to remember what makes us successful and why we have success,” he remarked. “We are a team that works hard, plays physical, and uses our speed. We are not fancy and have to earn what we get.
“Our defensive game was terrible this weekend, and we need to regroup on our own end and get back to the basics.
“Our power play needs to get some confidence and start contributing,” he added.
Strachan also stressed hard work has a direct correlation to ice time.
“We need players to show up and be focused and ready to give 100 percent for 60 minutes. We have players that think they should be handed playing time and it doesn’t work like that on our team,” he admitted.
“You earn what you get and some guys better realize this in a hurry and start playing consistent.”
The Sabres didn’t only lose on the scoreboard on Saturday as the oft-injured Colton Kennedy (who has played in 22 of 30 games since being acquired in late November) went down with what looked like a serious shoulder problem.
“He brings a lot to our team and is going to be missed for the next few weeks,” Strachan said. “We will need someone to step up and take his role on.
“Hopefully, we can battle through the first round [against either Sioux Lookout or Dryden] and he can join us in the second round if we are fortunate enough to get there.”