While the weather outside has been cooling down, the Buffalo Jr. Sabres have been heating up the OJHL.
The Jr. Sabres have had a massive turnaround recently after dealing with some rough stretches early in the season as many new players acclimated themselves to the roster. Since the beginning of December, the Jr. Sabres have won nine of their past 12 games to push back into playoff contention.
“We’ve been playing better,” forward Ryan Kuhn said. “The month of December turned our season around and we finally strung some wins together, beating some good teams, getting some confidence. Hopefully we can get rolling moving forward.”
As is the case with many young teams, finding the resiliency to win close games in tough situations takes time. Buffalo found that out Wednesday when a 4-1 loss to the Oakville Blades at HARBORCENTER finished a stretch of three games in four days.
Buffalo opened this week with a 6-5 double OT win over the Pickering Panthers on Sunday, and an 8-2 win over the Milton Icehawks on Tuesday. The offense may simply have been plagued by the fatigue, as Wednesday was the first time the Jr. Sabres scored fewer than three goals in a game since November 24.
Finding ways to earn the gritty goals will be the key on nights when the team is not finding the fancy opportunities.
“In close games with good teams, we’ve got to find a way to play better physically and score some ugly goals instead of just looking for pretty ones,” Kuhn said. “If we get that going, we should be good.”
“It was a tough loss,” forward Daniel LaFontaine added. “We had a few goals that we shouldn’t have let in, but we played three games in four days. It’s tough to pull it out here at the end.”
The Jr. Sabres have 13 games left in their regular season schedule to cement a playoff spot in the OJHL’s South-West Conference. Currently the team has a record of 16-22-1-1 (34 pts.), which puts them in the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
The handful of players that have seen Buffalo capture two straight division titles will be the ones continuing the push to extend the winter momentum.
“The team’s really coming together,” Gabriel said. “We’ve got some guys coming back and we’re starting to find our identity. Everyone’s starting to work as a team and we’re just trying to get everyone on the same page come February to keep the playoff run going.”
Continuing his rise over the course of the season, Kuhn was a major catalyst for Buffalo’s success over the past month and a half. For his efforts, the OJHL recognized Kuhn with South-West Conference Player of the Month honors for the month of December.
In seven December games, Kuhn registered nine goals and three assists. Three of those goals came in a December 5 comeback victory against Trenton that the Jr. Sabres captain pointed to as a trigger to the team’s winning ways.
Kuhn was also more than willing to defer some of the honor to his linemates, Gabriel and Christopher Berger.
“That was a big honor, but I couldn’t have done it without my teammates and my linemates specifically,” he said. “It’s just an award that comes from a team playing well.”
The line has been a driving force for the Jr. Sabres over the past few weeks. Kuhn and Gabriel had scoring streaks of 13 and 14 games, respectively, come to an end in Wednesday’s loss. Berger, the second-youngest player on the team, has points in seven of his last nine games.
“We found some chemistry and put the puck in the net,” Kuhn said. “Overall, the last 13 or so games we’ve been rolling and it’s been real fun.”
“We’re on the same page, and I think for us it’s more about setting an example for the other guys and working hard,” Gabriel added. “I think that’s a big part of our success and we work together well.”
Three Jr. Sabres have made college commitments for the 2015-16 season, and they’ll all be staying in Western New York.
Gabriel and LaFontaine have both signed commitments to play for head coach Dave Smith and the Canisius Golden Griffins at HARBORCENTER next winter, while Kuhn will be heading north to play for the Niagara Purple Eagles.
“It’s pretty cool staying home and playing for the home fans; and it’s a beautiful rink to play in,” Gabriel said. “I’ve been to a couple games and it’s always a great turnout. Dave’s been helping me along the way here, just making me comfortable.”
A knee injury limited LaFontaine to 21 games last season, but the forward has come back with five goals and 10 assists in 25 games. He’ll have a chance to continue growing around some familiar faces.
“It’s good to know a few guys, so it will be much easier to come in as a freshman,” Lafontaine said. “I’m really excited, can’t wait for next year. Obviously, the HARBORCENTER is great, and it’ll be a good couple of years for sure.”
Kuhn is a Wheatfield native, so Niagara’s proximity to the area where he began playing hockey was important to him.
“That was a big factor in my decision,” he said. “It’s nice to stay home with family and friends, and just be comfortable at home.”
- Saturday, January 17 @ Stouffville (7:30 p.m.)
- Wednesday, January 21 vs. Orangeville (7:30 p.m., HARBORCENTER)
- Sunday, January 25 vs. Toronto Patriots (5:30 p.m., HARBORCENTER)
- Monday, January 26 @ Hamilton (7:30 p.m.)
- Wednesday, January 28 vs. Toronto Jr. Canadiens (7:30 p.m., HARBORCENTER)
- Saturday, January 31 @ Georgetown (7:30 p.m.)