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by Derek Wangler / Buffalo Sabres

Looking to get your hockey fix right here in Buffalo? Well then you need to check out the Buffalo Junior Sabres. They are Junior “A” team based out of the Northtown Center in Amherst, and play a 55-game schedule in the highly competitive Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL). The Jr. Sabres are the only US-based team in the 22-team league.

The team is coached by former Sabre Michael Peca, and he’s already got a good feeling about this year’s squad, after a 23-21-5 finish in 2011-12.

“We’re pretty optimistic about our season,” said Peca, who also serves as the team’s general manager. “It’s still relatively early, but I haven’t seen a team out there that I can say is any better than ours.”

The Junior Sabres are off to a great start this season, going 6-2 in the month of September. They are currently tied for second in the Southwest Conference’s West Division with 12 points, just two points behind Burlington. Buffalo’s quick start also garnered them honorable mention in the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s weekly Top 20 ranking that was released on October 1.

“I’m quite pleased. I don’t think you’re ever going to have everything either go your way or go as planned, but everyday we’re seeing improvement,” said Peca.

After lighting the lamp on the power play as often as the Junior Sabres have, it’s no wonder why they’re winning games.

“Our power play is exceptional, which is due to a lot of the skill that we have,” said Peca.

Exceptional may even be an understatement. The Junior Sabres have tallied 13 power play goals in 8 games. Ryan Schmelzer is leading the way in that category scoring five of his six goals with the man advantage.

The team features a mix of local talent and out-of-town prospects, all looking to get exposure to hopefully receive a college scholarship. Team captain Derek Patterson – a native of Calgary, Alberta – didn’t just end up in Buffalo by chance. Patterson’s dad, Colin, played for the Buffalo Sabres from 1991-1993.

“My dad knew Larry Playfair and it seemed like a great fit,” said Patterson. “[The Junior Sabres have] a real good program with a lot of exposure.”

Patterson’s teammates Brian Ruff (Lindy Ruff) and Ryall Ledyard (Grant Ledyard) also have family ties to the Sabres organization.

Some other out-of-town players include forwards Tyler Gjurich (Hatfield, Pa.), the team’s leader in points with 13; Alex Dagnal (Pittsburgh, Pa.), tied for the team lead in goal scoring with six; defenseman Sean Federow (Niagara Falls, Ont.), who has racked up seven assists this season – all of them coming on the power play.

Schmelzer, one of the team’s assistant captains, took a more conventional path to the Junior Sabres.

“I played for the Junior Blades (an affiliate of the Junior Sabres), [then] tried out last year and they liked me enough to keep me around for this season,” said the native of East Amherst.

Schmelzer is currently in a tie for the team lead in goals, netting six in eight games.

Some other local players include forwards David Seward (Williamsville), who has tallied seven points so far; Josh Kielich (Orchard Park), who has six points on the season; and Max Mikowski (Cheektowaga), also with six points.

Despite their different ways onto the roster, the team is clicking just fine on the ice.

“The guys have come together really quickly,” says Peca. “It’s a real close knit group of kids in there.”

Over the next 12 days the Junior Sabres play seven games, three of which are at home – starting with tonight’s tilt against North York at 7:30 p.m. All home games are played at the Northtown Center in Amherst. Tickets are just $7 for adults; $3 for students and seniors.

The Jr. Sabres hit the road this weekend for a pair of games. On Saturday they’ll be in Burlington to face the division-leading Cougars at 8 p.m., followed by an afternoon contest in North York at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

The Oakville Blades will be the opposition when the Sabres return home on Tuesday, October 9 at 7:30 p.m. Then the Hamilton Red Wings pay a visit to Buffalo on Friday, October 12 (7:30 p.m.), as the Sabres kick off a run of three straight weekend games. On Saturday, October 13, they host Orangeville (4:30 p.m.), and travel to Milton to take on the Icehawks on Sunday, October 14 at 3:30 p.m.

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