The St. Albert Sabres earned a crucial two points in the battle for home ice in the playoffs with a 4-3 come-from-behind victory Wednesday over the Leduc Oil Kings.
In the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League the top four teams in each of the four divisions make the quarter-finals. After beating Leduc the Sabres (17-7-5) are four points behind the SSAC Southgate Lions (20-7-3) for second place in the nitro north division.
“We knew it was a must-win game,” said forward Taylor Fontaine. “We haven't been as focused as we could be and that has to change. We have two weeks left and if we're not prepared, then we'll have a quick two-and-out [in the playoffs].”
After playing the Grande Prairie Storm (2-26-1) twice this weekend on the road, the Sabres close out the regular season against the KC Squires (11-13-6) and Lloydminster Heat (9-17-3). That gives St. Albert a game in hand on the Lions, who face the Canadian Athletic Club (3-24-3), Camrose Kodiaks (6-19-4) and the Fort Saskatchewan Rangers (22-5-3) in their last three contests.
Even though Grande Prairie is one of the worst teams in the league statistically, Fontaine expects the Storm to play tough in their own barn.
“We can't take them lightly. It's a huge four points for us,” he said. “We'll keep it simple and if we get calls against us we'll have to adapt and play through adversity. We know we have to win but I don't think it will be a distraction.”
It was that one-game-at-a-time mentality that pushed the Sabres past Leduc (16-11-2). Zach Gonek, Luke Mahura, Jakob Lavoie and Sebastien Auray scored as the Sabres went two-for-seven on the power play. Leduc was one-for-four with the man advantage.
Mitch Martell stopped 28 shots for the Sabres while Tanner McCorriston turned aside 23 for the Oil Kings
“Leduc comes with a reputation but they work hard and compete hard,” said head coach Umberto Fiorillo. “It was a good test for us. Too many nights we get away without competing, and with these guys you don't. We learned that. There was no flow early with so many penalties but you have to battle through it.”
Leduc got on the board five minutes into the period, converting on the cycle with the man advantage as Jacob Williamson whacked home a rebound.
The goal seemed to rattle the Sabres a bit, who played on their heels for most of the period as Leduc continued to dominate the boards and play hard physically. With plenty of chirping going on between whistles, leading to several misconducts, both teams struggled to stay in the game mentally.
“It's not the ref's fault,” Fontaine said. “It was tough with those 10 minute [misconducts] and all forwards in [the penalty box] so we didn’t have many bodies to work with.”
Five minutes into the second, Gonek evened the score at one apiece. While battling for a loose puck in front of McCorriston, he lifted it up under the crossbar.
Gonek, playing up front to add a bit of size and strength, grinned at the opportunity to play forward.
“It's more of a challenge up front. It's fun, there's more contact and I get to hit some guys,” he laughed.
“He skates well and he's tough,” added Fiorillo. “That's an element sometimes we don't demonstrate on a consistent basis but if we can do that [consistently] then we're going to give him that opportunity.”
Late in the frame Mahura notched the Sabres' second power play goal, stretching out for a rebound off Jeff Harrison's point shot.
“Execution on our passing is probably the biggest reason why we weren't successful in the first two periods,” Fiorillo said. “We’re worried about being simple and puck-in, puck-out and be good in our own end. When we do that we start seeing more success.”
By the 4:07 mark of the third, Leduc jumped ahead 3-2 on goals from Robert Caine (wraparound) and Williamson (turnover in the slot).
“We had a talk in the second period and it was basically that we couldn't lose. We knew we had it in us,” Fontaine said. “There were breakdowns and a lack of effort on two goals but after that we came back and played our game.”
Halfway through the period the Sabres knotted it at 3-3 with a blistering slapshot by Lavoie off the faceoff through McCorriston.
Two minutes later Auray gave St. Albert the lead. Jake Mykitiuk bobbed and weaved into the zone, undressed a Leduc defender but the puck slipped loose to an open Auray, who backhanded a perfect shot to the top corner.
“We had a lot of guys stepping up. Our leadership group was there but I thought we got key contributions from guys like Gonek, Shane Bowzaylo, Tyler Mrkonjic and Lavoie,” Fiorillo said. “We had a lot of different contributors and that's unique to say in the last while.”