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by Joe Ray / Buffalo Sabres
David Baskerville was one of two Jr. Sabres players to commit to a college program this week

The Buffalo Jr. Sabres have spent this season adjusting to a new coach, a new home rink and new faces joining the team at different points of the season. They’ve weathered it all and have grown together as a team now with only three games remaining in the season and a playoff spot on the line.

Buffalo split two games at HARBORCENTER this week to hold on to eighth place in the OJHL’s South-West Conference. Monday night, the Jr. Sabres asserted their dominance in a 6-1 victory over Burlington, outshooting the Cougars 49-16 in the process.

Five different skaters picked up two points in the win and goaltender Alex Connal had his shutout bid spoiled on a power-play tally with 3:18 to play.

Wednesday night, the Jr. Sabres hosted the Aurora Tigers, the OJHL’s top team with 85 points. Both teams played strong games defensively, but Aurora made the most of their 21 shots, taking home a 5-1 victory.

After enduring losing streaks of seven and eight games in the first two months of the season, the Jr. Sabres eventually rallied back, winning 11 of 17 games throughout December and January while losing no more than two games in a row at any point during that stretch.

A change in the team’s mentality was a big factor in the turnaround.

“I think we’ve just got to keep a positive attitude,” forward David Baskerville said. “I think midseason when we were down, we had a lot of negatives on the bench – just take your stick and slap the boards, things like that.

“I think we‘ve just got to keep talking to each other and picking each other up. We have to remember that we’re a team and we’re only going to go far if we stay together.”

The roster of the Jr. Sabres team has been bolstered by veteran additions over the course of the season with players like Josh Gabriel, Zach Evancho, and Brenden Dunning coming back home from other programs. The presence of players with years of junior hockey experience helps foster the development of a number of first-year players.

“You can definitely tell the difference between the start of the year and now with these younger guys,” defenseman Ben Casale said. “Their games have just been elevated so much. For us older guys, we just wanted to go out and work hard in games and practice to show them what you have to do to win.”

Buffalo has a tremendous opportunity to move up in the standings in the upcoming final week of the regular season. The Jr. Sabres are currently 21-27-1-2 with 45 points. Two of their final three games are against the St. Michael’s Buzzers (47 points) and the Orangeville Flyers (46 points).

They’re looking to make the playoffs for the fourth season in a row.

“We’re feeling confident,” Casale said. “We control our own fate, and as long as we take care of business it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Should the Jr. Sabres falter next week, they may be at risk to lose their postseason berth to the Hamilton Red Wings, who are currently four points out of the playoff picture. Given how far the Jr. Sabres have come throughout the season, such an ending would be a major disappointment.

“This is a group that started out with a new coach, with kids away at other teams, and they’ve all kind of come home,” head coach John Tucker said. “The team has really bonded together. I think we’re going to be a very dangerous team to play.

“Our kids are on the ice every day at this level while others teams might be on the ice two days a week. It’s really going to show as the season wears down here. Our conditioning and our closeness is going to pay off for us.”

Two more members of the Jr. Sabres committed to local college hockey programs in the past weeks, bringing the total of local hockey commitments from this team to five.

Baskerville committed to join Canisius College starting in 2016, becoming the fifth Jr. Sabres player in the last two seasons to commit to the Griffs’ program. Former Jr. Sabres forwards Ryan Schmelzer and Nolan Sheeran have excelled in their freshman seasons under head coach Dave Smith. Forwards Josh Gabriel and Daniel Lafontaine will also join them next season.

Baskerville, 17, is a native of Eden and remembers former Griffs such as Chris Forsman, Kyle Bushee and Scott Moser – who is currently an assistant coach under Smith – from when he was a younger player in the Cazenovia program.

“I’m used to playing at the HARBORCENTER now and I’ve had connections to Canisius for a while now,” Baskerville said. “Over the summer, Coach Smith contacted me and we’ve just kept a good relationship. When he offered me last week, I couldn’t pass it up.

“I know my role and I have high expectations for myself. I’ve just got to keep working there.”

Casale, 20 announced his college decision on Tuesday. He’s committed to play for the Fredonia Blue Devils next season. He’s currently second on the Jr. Sabres with 135 games of OJHL experience and leads the team’s defensemen in scoring with four goals and 15 assists in 49 games this year.

Feb. 18 vs. St. Michael’s (1:30 p.m., HARBORCENTER)
Feb. 20 @ Burlington (7:30 p.m.)
Feb. 21 @ Orangeville (7:30 p.m.)

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