Even as the midway point of the Ontario Junior Hockey League season approaches, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres have had to continually adapt to changing conditions.
After a rough start to the season, the Jr. Sabres strung together four consecutive wins from October 14-22 and appeared to be turning a corner. Since the end of that streak, however, the team has failed to collect a point in eight straight outings, surrendering 45 goals during the slump and falling to last place in the OJHL West division at 6-19-0-0.
With 13 of the 19 players on the Jr. Sabres’ roster in their first season with the team, head coach John Tucker recognizes that there will be lengthy learning experiences with this group.
“It’s just growing pains with our group,” Tucker said. “We have a lot of frustrated kids who want to do well and are working really hard in practice. Frustration sets in when you don’t win, and that’s a good thing. If they weren’t upset and frustrated and mad at themselves, then they would accept losing. We have a really good core of leaders on the team that we’re counting on to help pull us out of this.”
“At the beginning of the year we were struggling in many areas, now we just have to work and focus on playing a full game,” forward Zach Evancho added. “The game’s not 40 minutes, it’s not 20, it’s 60. If we can play a full 60 minutes, we can compete with anybody in the league, and I think that’s about to happen for us.”
The Jr. Sabres have also had to adapt after their captain, Nick Smith, decided to leave in the team in order to begin focusing on his collegiate education.
After compiling 25 points (10+15) in 36 games with the Jr. Sabres last season, Smith played 15 games this year before pursuing a different set of future endeavors.
“He was two years out of high school and part of it was just time to get to work, get to school, and look at some other options,” Tucker said of Smith. “We were hurting, he was our captain, but sometimes life takes over.”
Forward Ryan Kuhn, another second year Jr. Sabre, took up the captaincy in the wake of Smith’s departure.
Kuhn says that the new letter on his jersey has not changed his role drastically.
“I’m just trying to help a lot of the young guys, stay on them,” he said. “They are all coming along well as they’re starting to learn and help the team out. I think we’re going to string some wins together soon, we’re just stuck in a bit of a rut now.”
Evancho’s return to the Buffalo Jr. Sabres organization has been a boon to the team this season. After playing for the U18 Jr. Sabres in 2011-12, Evancho spent the past two seasons with the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms. The 19-year-old winger returned to Buffalo six games into the OJHL season, and he is now tied with Kuhn and Tim Kielich for the team scoring lead with 16 points (9+7), aided by a five-game point streak.
“Coming from Youngstown, it’s a bit more of a faster league so you have to move the puck qucker. You have to know what you’re going to do before you do it,” Evancho said.“ Here [in the OJHL] you have a little more time to make plays, but at the same time it’s more physical. I’ve had to change some stuff, but most of it stays the same.”
Listed at 5’8” and 155 pounds, Evancho is one of the smallest players on the team, but that has not hindered him one bit.
“He came back from Youngstown with a great attitude,” Tucker said. “As one of our older guys, he’s been a great leader for us. He’s probably one of our biggest hitters too. Heart goes a long way; it doesn’t always have to be size. He’s definitely a great player.”
While the team may be struggling on the ice, the Jr. Sabres are well on their way to reaping the benefits of being one of the home teams at the newly-completed HARBORCENTER complex.
“For the whole Buffalo Jr. Sabres program, it’s going to do a lot of great things for kids in Western New York,” Tucker said. “Everything is just first class, and everyone is really enjoying it. We’re just happy and thrilled.”
The Jr. Sabres dropped their first two contests on HARBORCENTER ice, but the players and coaches have taken notice of the tangible change in the atmosphere around the organization.
“It’s been way different, actually,” Evancho said. “We’re starting to get more fans every game, people want to check us out and they want to come check the new rink out. There’s more of a junior atmosphere now.”
The Jr. Sabres have six games remaining in November, and hockey fans will have a pair of chances to be part of that junior hockey atmosphere at HARBORCENTER.
- Friday, November 14 @ Pickering (7:30 p.m.)
- Tuesday, November 18 vs. St. Michael’s (7:30 p.m., HARBORCENTER)
- Friday, November 21 @ Milton (7:30 p.m.)
- Monday, November 24 vs. Stouffville (7:30 p.m., HARBORCENTER)
- Friday, November 28 @ Burlington (7:30 p.m.)
- Sunday, November 30 @ Newmarket (7:30 p.m.)