Following a 10-day holiday break, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres returned to the ice with authority. After dropping four straight contests before the break, Buffalo dug deep for a 7-4 win against the Pickering Panthers, scoring six goals on nine shots in the third period.
When Buffalo got off to a slow start and fell behind 3-1 after the first 40 minutes of the game, head coach Michael Peca recognized the team was still in a position to win and rallied them for the comeback victory.
“We didn’t get off to a great start, but as the game went on we [got better],” Peca said. “The second period we completely dominated, we just couldn’t put the puck in the net. We had two breakaways, a couple two-on-ones, a couple three-on-ones, and some wide open nets we just missed. The message going into the third period was ‘If we have the same kind of period, we’re going to win the hockey game.’
“Then we second-guessed ourselves, gave up one in the first minute to go down 4-1. But we just kept continuing to create chances and the puck was going in the net for us.”
The offensive onslaught for the Jr. Sabres was led by captain Ryan Schmelzer, who had six points (2+4) in just his second game since October 30. Max Mikowski contributed two goals and two assists, while Darren McCormick chipped in a goal and two assists.
Offense has come easily to the talented Buffalo roster this season, as they lead the OJHL in scoring with 166 goals on the season. But Buffalo’s team defense still showed room for improvement, as Peca echoed his sentiments from the past few weeks that the team has to be more responsible in their end.
“The one thing we’ve seen this year is our issue isn’t scoring goals, it’s defending at the right time,” Peca said. That has to be collectively the five guys on the ice and what our focus is going to be moving forward.”
The big news off the ice from the past week was Peca’s decision to trade defenseman Mason Evans to the Pickering Panthers. The decision was made ahead of Friday’s roster deadline where Buffalo must commit to a 23-man roster for the rest of the season.
Peca noted that Buffalo had a surplus of offensive defensemen, and that played a role in the decision making process.
“Our responsibility is to help these kids and get them ready for the next level. In Mason’s case, he’s going to Connecticut College next year, and the thing they see in him is the ability to run the power play,” Peca said.
“We’ve got a lot of offensive defensemen, and we would have loved to have kept Mason. But the best thing for Mason is to go to a team that’s got a chance to compete in the playoffs in the other conference that struggles on the power play. He’s got a chance to run their power play and I think that’s going to be a great situation in his development for next year.”
Evans was second among Buffalo defensemen in scoring with two goals and 17 assists in 31 games. The move provides an immediate opportunity for other defensemen such as Dennis Gilbert, Dylan Howatt and Tony DeVito to step into larger roles for Buffalo.
The trade of Evans was made to clear a roster space for forward Daniel LaFontaine, who signed with Buffalo before Friday’s roster deadline. LaFontaine played the first four games of the season before suffering a knee injury.
Peca says LaFontaine should be ready for game action by early February, and he will be pushing LaFontaine in practice over the next two to three weeks to get him ready to return.
Buffalo is back in action this Sunday for a 2:30 p.m. road game against the Stouffville Spirit. They return to Buffalo for a game at First Niagara Center on Wednesday, January 15 at 7 p.m. The Pickering Panthers will provide the opposition that night for the second time in 12 days.
The Jr. Sabres also have home games this month at the Northtown Center on Tuesday, Jan. 21 against the Aurora Tigers, and Monday, Jan. 27 vs. Whitby. Both games begin at 7:30 p.m.
Click here for the complete Buffalo Jr. Sabres schedule and ticket information.