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by Joe Ray / Buffalo Sabres

With the month of December coming to a close for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, the team is certainly in great position looking forward on the rest of the season. However, the final month of 2013 has been a mixed bag of strong and poor performances, and they have plenty to improve upon moving forward.

After a six-game losing streak was broken December 4 with a 10-goal outburst against Hamilton, Buffalo followed that up by scoring seven and eight goals in their next two wins. But that three-game winning streak quickly became their current three-game losing skid, including a 5-4 loss to St. Michael’s at the Frozen Frontier in Rochester.

The recent losing streak for Buffalo was highlighted in their latest game, an up-and-down contest against Mississauga on Friday that ended in a 6-5 victory for the Chargers. Buffalo got out to a four-goal lead after the first period with scores from Tony DeVito, Ryan Kuhn, Michael Ederer and Darren McCormick. However, Mississauga was able to fight their way back and win the game with three goals in the final 3:40 of the third period.

Head coach Michael Peca said that his team needs to learn to win close games where their offense cannot produce easy victories, and that comes down to leadership and accountability.

“Until they collectively in [the locker room] hold each other accountable, they’ll never get through those moments,” Peca said. “In a game like (Friday) when we clearly had the game under control after one period, when the game is on the line, the guys who are our veterans, our leaders, our captains, are the ones that are supposed to lead us and they were the ones that let us down. That can’t happen.”

Peca also expressed his displeasure with the way his team’s top players have been finishing games lately.

“You’ve just got to rely on your veterans to play. They’re the ones that have to lead the way,” Peca said. Obviously I’m going to make sure that some of the young guys that are earning it; they’re going to get those opportunities now in key situations. The only thing we can do as a coaching staff is take away ice time, which we are going to do. But the leaders in the locker room have to take charge; until losing hurts them as much as it hurts the coaches, we’ll see a lot of the same thing.”

Team defense throughout the lineup has been an issue lately for Buffalo, as turnovers and defensive miscues have led to opposing teams putting up good scoring totals. The most telling stat of all is that Buffalo has held its opposition to less than three goals just twice over their last 15 games.

Goaltenders Joseph Pianta and Brandon Mueller have seen a number of starts over that time, but neither has found success over recent weeks. A large part of these issues comes from the turnovers allowed in front of them.

As was the case against Mississauga when Mueller made a number of big saves to keep his team in the game, it has been hard for Buffalo to pull out victories when their opponents get so many quality opportunities.

“A bunch of those goals were very avoidable by our goaltender,” Peca said. “[Because of] the turnovers in the second period, there weren’t many goals they got that you could say clearly beat the goaltender, he didn’t have a chance on. As disappointing as the play was in front of him, you still need your goalie to make a save.”

A positive for Buffalo is that they are starting to get healthier. DeVito returned to the lineup on defense on December 13, and he has three points in his first three games. Forward Daniel LaFontaine is also expected to return to the lineup in the coming weeks after missing all but four games this season with a knee injury.

This influx of healthy players means Peca will have some personnel decisions to make, and younger players may be given a chance to fill some larger roles.

“Without a doubt,” Peca said when asked about possible change coming to his team’s lineup. “Next game, guys are going to get an opportunity to play because there’s going to be some disappointed veterans that won’t be in the lineup.”

The Jr. Sabres will hit the road to play against the Cobourg Cougars on Monday, Dec. 23 for a 7 p.m. contest, their final game of the calendar year. Buffalo will return to action for another road game on January 3 when they visit the Pickering Panthers at 7:30 p.m.

Buffalo’s next game at the Northtown Center will be against a divisional rival, the Hamilton Red Wings, on Tuesday, January 7 at 7:30 p.m.

Click here for the complete Buffalo Jr. Sabres schedule and ticket information.

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