The Fort Frances Jr. Sabres came out of their first-ever series undefeated after a 5-1 win Friday night and then a 3-3 tie on Saturday against the visiting Thunder Bay Bulldogs.
“It’s definitely more positive than after the exhibition weekend,” said head coach Wayne Strachan. “We’re growing as a team. We still need to work hard, and pay attention to a few key details with systems.”
The honour of the first Sabres’ goal in history went to newcomer Alessio Tomassetti, who joined the team just the day before along with fellow Quesnel, B.C. native Shawn Fulton.
The goal came on the power play late in the first period Friday night.
The Bulldogs rebounded with a goal in the second, but the Sabres regained the lead 30 seconds into the third when Mitch Cain netted the go-ahead goal.
The backbreaker came less than three minutes later when captain Quinn Amiel beat Bulldogs’ defenceman John Prodaniuk in a race for the puck and potted a short-handed goal—drawing cheers from the 850 or so fans on hand at the Ice for Kids Arena.
Fulton and Cain later added insurance goals to ice the franchise’s first victory.
Winning their first game—and winning so decisively—was important for the team coming off a winless pre-season, Strachan said.
“I think it’s huge for the guys’ confidence,” he remarked. “And just to play the way they did in the third period with that character after a dismal second.”
After that second period, in which the team’s pressure backed off and goalie Ryan Faragher allowed his only goal out of the 30 shots he faced, Strachan issued a challenge for the leaders of the team to rise to the occasion.
Amiel, who led the way with four points Friday night, said he’d like to think scoring shorthanded was leading by example.
“The coach said between the second and third, whoever was the leader had to step it up, so I had to listen,” he remarked.
As for the goal itself, “it was just a race with me and the other defenceman,” he said. “Just buried my head and shot one. Prayed for the best.”
Strachan also was quick to finger Cain as one of the leaders under pressure, but the Fort Frances native still was overwhelmed by the experience after the game.
“It feels good to be in front of the hometown crowd,” he said. “It was definitely a big rush, hearing the crowd and all.”
The two teams followed Friday night with a 3-3 draw on Saturday—an up-and-down affair that saw the lead juggled between the Sabres and Bulldogs.
The Sabres gave up a 1-0 lead in the second period and had to claw their way back to a tie twice in the third, but had other things to worry about after one of their top blueliners, MacKenzie York, left the ice injured after taking a knee from Zak Sentance in the first period.
York was sent to hospital during the game and Strachan said he is listed as day-to-day with “a very bad bruise.”
No penalty was assessed on the play but Logan McDonell took matters into his own hands—dropping the gloves against Sentance for a fight that had many in the stands on their feet.
“Guy kneed my player, didn’t like it too much. Had to do something about that,” McDonell shrugged.
McDonell admitted he doesn’t have a reputation as a fighter, but may be earning one after a similar incident up in Dryden against the host Ice Dogs in pre-season action.
“I fight when I have to fight,” he said. “I rise to the occasion, I guess, when I gotta.”
York was riding a bike and getting some physiotherapy on his knee, but is doubtful for the team’s series in Dryden this weekend. He’s more likely to play next when the Sabres host the Thunder Bay Bearcats starting Oct. 5.
Strachan said the consensus among his staff was that the team was lacking in “energy and intensity” in Saturday’s game. The team carved out 1-0 leads in the first period in both games—only to lose them in the second.
“I don’t know if it’s just nerves or focus,” Strachan admitted. “It’s a 60-minute game, and we have to find a way to stay motivated for the full 60 minutes.”
The Sabres outplayed the Bulldogs often throughout the series, which was borne out on the scoresheet. The visitors were outshot 45-30 and 46-32, respectively.
One of the Sabres’ major failings Saturday was the time the team spent in the penalty box. While the team’s penalty kill looked dominant Friday, the time spent shorthanded on what Strachan termed “bad penalties” took its toll on the team.
Both Jordan Matthews and Chad Reynolds were assessed penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct in the second, and Amiel took a needless penalty for slashing when he slapped Bulldogs’ goalie Tom Gratz across the chest with his stick out of frustration after a fruitless scoring chance.
Amiel’s slashing penalty resulted in a Bulldogs’ goal which put the Sabres again behind the eight ball—down 3-2 with seven minutes left in the game.
But Matthews beat Gratz wide with just over two minutes to go to force five minutes of four-on-four overtime.
Goaltending duties were split between Faragher, who was between the pipes Friday, and David Novak, who started Saturday’s game. Strachan declined to name who’d be starting the next game, but “I do have it in mind,” he said.
The Sabres now head out for their first-ever road trip with a pair of games up Highway 502 in Dryden on Friday and Saturday.
The series will be a tough one, Strachan said, against a former Borderland Thunder rival that’s “notorious” for being hard to beat at home.
The teams will play a third game at the Memorial Sports Centre on Tuesday, Sept. 25.
All three games start at 7:30 p.m.