With the postseason in sight, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres have been putting together all the right pieces to close the regular season on the right note. The electric offense and timely defense that have gotten Buffalo through the regular season have been prevalent recently, as the team has collected points in six straight contests.
Over the past two weeks, Buffalo embarked on a five-game winning streak that cemented their status as the top team in the OJHL West Division. The streak included a key 5-2 victory over the Milton Icehawks on February 7, the leading competitor to Buffalo’s division title.
Perhaps the most noteworthy game of the winning streak came against Toronto Lakeshore on Saturday. After mustering just three goals on 44 shots through two periods, Michael Ederer and Max Mikowski were able to erase a two-goal deficit and send the game to overtime at 5-5. The extra period would see no goals, and in the shootout, captain Ryan Schmelzer provided the deciding goal to send Buffalo home with a victory.
Even in a shootout loss to the Kingston Voyageurs at the Northtown Center on Monday, Buffalo head coach Michael Peca says that the will to win has been driving his team recently. Motivation is certainly not an issue for his players with the playoffs approaching.
“We’re never going to lose confidence in our ability to come back,” Peca said. “We’ve done it from two, three, four goals back. It’s going to be harder as you get into the playoffs because teams are going to be able to shut down harder, but a lot of credit to our guys for sticking with it and finding a way to get a point.”
Buffalo will close out their season with a brutal stretch of four games in four days spanning from Wednesday to Saturday. Peca said that the team will be calling up some Junior B players to give some of his players a night off here and there.
“The last thing we want to do is risk any injury. We only need one point to secure first place in our division, and over the four games we’re comfortable we’ll get that,” Peca said. “We’ll be rolling four lines, six defensemen, and both goalies will play.”
It’s been a long time coming, but center Daniel LaFontaine finally returned to the Buffalo lineup this weekend.
LaFontaine, who suffered a knee injury in September after playing just four games with the Jr. Sabres, recorded an assist in each of Buffalo’s last two games. While the road to recovery was a bit longer than initially expected, LaFontaine is just glad to be back in game action.
“[The knee] feels pretty good,” said LaFontaine, the son of Pat LaFontaine, the Sabres’ President of Hockey Operations. “Obviously I’m not in the best condition right now just because I’m catching up to everybody who’s been playing all season. It feels good, no pain, and I’m just trying to get my conditioning back.”
Peca acknowledged that LaFontaine still needs to get reacclimated to the speed of the game, but with their upcoming four-game stretch, there will be no shortage of game time for LaFontaine.
“He’s still finding his legs. He said he didn’t feel great in his first game back [Saturday at Toronto]. He played twice in three days, and after being out almost five months that’s not easy to do. With our schedule coming up, it’s going to be a tough test for him. No better way to get back into game shape than playing a lot of games.”
LaFontaine also had some good news off the ice last week when he announced his commitment to play at Canisius College starting in the 2015-16 season.
“I met Dave Smith about three months ago and I really liked the coaching staff,” LaFontaine said. ”I visited the campus and I really liked it, and the HarborCenter is going to be great. To go there, it’s an honor.”
LaFontaine is the third member of the Jr. Sabres to commit to Canisius this season. Forwards Ryan Schmelzer and Nolan Sheeran will begin playing for the Golden Griffins next season, while LaFontaine will return to the Jr. Sabres for a full season before heading to Canisius.
With two games that were postponed due to inclement winter weather earlier in the season, fans have two more chances to catch the Jr. Sabres during the regular season.
On Wednesday, Buffalo hosts the Hamilton Red Wings at the Northtown Center at 8:30 p.m. The Red Wings have won two of their previous three contests with Buffalo, but the Jr. Sabres’ lone win came at home.
First Niagara Center will be the stage for Buffalo’s final home game of the season, as they host the Whitby Rush at 7 p.m. on Thursday. A high-scoring game is almost certainly in store with two of the OJHL’s top offenses.
Buffalo will round out their regular season with two road contests. The team travels to Aurora for a 7:30 p.m. game on Friday, and then to Orangeville for a 7 p.m. game on Saturday. The OJHL postseason is slated to begin on February 26.