While team defense has been an area of weakness recently for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, it became a strength that helped them to a commanding victory Wednesday night at First Niagara Center.
Goaltender Joseph Pianta stopped 29 shots as Buffalo pounded the Pickering Panthers by a score of 7-1. Right wing Max Mikowski led all Buffalo scorers with three points, scoring the game’s first two goals and adding an assist. Five other forwards contributed two points in the victory, showcasing the depth that the team has assembled offensively.
But this game was won by Buffalo’s commitment to playing team defense rather than by any individual effort. The win marked the first time since December 7 - and just the third time over their last 20 games - the Jr. Sabres held their opposition under four goals.
Head coach Michael Peca was extremely proud of the way his team’s defense in the victory.
“The defense actually started in the offensive and neutral zones,” explained Peca. “That’s where we started to get our defense because when we’re able to apply back pressure, we create turnovers. And our puck movement through the neutral zone was excellent. So we were able to get a lot of odd-man rushes in our favor. Like I said before, we’re trying to slowly get our game to the level where we’re strong in all three zones.”
The defense certainly helped Pianta, who was pulled from Buffalo’s last game on Sunday against the Stouffville Spirit. After giving up three goals in the first four minutes, Peca benched Pianta for Brandon Mueller, but gave Pianta another chance at the start of the second period. Pianta was stellar the remainder of the game, stopping 24 shots in the final two periods and overtime to get the game to a shootout, which Buffalo won.
“It was a good win last game, and I felt like I carried the momentum of the big win into tonight with the quick start, and we just kept giving it to them,” Pianta said.
Over Pianta’s last five periods of game action, Peca said that his play has returned to the level it needs to be at for the team to be successful.
“We’re challenging him on a daily basis. He’s a guy that in the offseason we went to grab because we knew he’s a big-game guy, he’s a competitor and wants to play a lot of minutes. If he wants to continue to do that he’s going to have to perform.”
The action started quickly against Pickering as Mikowski scored just 97 seconds into the game off a pass from Ryan Schmelzer, who was coming off a six-point outing against Pickering. Mikowski’s second goal came on the power play six minutes later off of a great pass from Nolan Sheeran.
After the previous game against Stouffville, the quick start provided the Jr. Sabres with the ability to seize control of the game early.
“It was a big change from the last couple of games, where we got down early and came back,” Mikowski said. “But we’re learning slowly that you have to be defensively minded first. We’re getting better with that every game.”
An unassisted goal by Darren McCormick off a careless Pickering turnover gave Buffalo three goals in the first period.
Buffalo would extend their lead to four in the second period, as Josh Gabriel deflected Wilson Vershay’s shot from the point. Nico Gonzalez also picked up an assist on that goal, which simultaneously snapped two long scoring droughts. Gabriel had gone six games without a point, and Gonzalez had been held scoreless four straight games.
Gonzalez scored 5:23 into the third with help from Gabriel and Ryan Kuhn to push Buffalo’s lead to 5-0. Pickering’s Michael Walker broke Pianta’s shutout bid three minutes later with a shot that just beat the goaltender stick side.
But Buffalo retaliated just 63 seconds after Pickering’s goal, as McCormick scored his second goal of the game. McCormick is now riding a five-game point streak with six goals and five assists in that span.
Michael Ederer concluded the scoring for the game with 8:38 to play, burying the rebound of a shot from defenseman Dylan Howatt.
Wedneday’s win at First Niagara Center was a role reversal from Buffalo’s first trip downtown this season, a 5-2 loss to the Milton Icehawks on November 11.
“For the most part tonight, we were able to get ourselves up, and this rink has been a bit of a curse for us, so it was good to nip that in the bud,” Peca said.
Buffalo looks to carry the momentum of their strong victory into a stretch of three games in four days this weekend. The team hits the road for a 7 p.m. game in Orangeville on Saturday, and then travels to Hamilton for a 7:30 p.m. game on Monday against the Red Wings. The Jr. Sabres return home to play the Aurora Tigers on Tuesday (January 21) at the Northtown Center. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
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