The best is yet to come from the St. Albert Gregg Distributors Sabres.
With 10 games remaining before the playoffs, the Sabres rank among the very best teams in the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League with 17 wins in 23 games.
“We’ve exceeded my expectations so far, which is great, but the key is for us now to get to the next level as we move forward,” said head coach Steve Ewaskiw.
The Sabres (17-5-1) are slotted second overall behind the Red Deer Rebels (18-1-2) in the 20-team circuit entering the Christmas break after holding down the No. 1 spot for a spell.
“Our team’s season is going pretty well. We started off really good and we’ve been picking it up and hopefully we’ll carry that on into January for the John Reid,” said captain Carmelo Crandall.
The John Reid Memorial Tournament, Jan. 16 to 19 at Servus Credit Union Place, is one of two major competitions outside the AMBHL the Sabres are gearing up for before the playoff push.
“We want be able to play with those elite level teams that are coming to John Reid and we'll see them as well in Kelowna at the end of January,” Ewaskiw said.
Despite a somewhat sketchy stretch by team standards – a season-high two losses in a row – the Sabres are playing with purpose and commitment.
“We have a good group of guys that have bought into what we’ve been selling, which has been nice. The team has really come together, which is the biggest thing for us,” Ewaskiw said.
“Our boys are skilled and they’re quick. They like to play fast so for us that’s been a big help as we’ve gone against the teams in the north. It’s the biggest thing that’s taken us to the point to where we are in the standings,” Ewaskiw added. “We’re a good team, but we’re coming up against lots of skilled and fast teams so we’ve got to make sure our habits are good to be able to compete with those guys.”
Crandall described the team’s strengths as, “Our work ethic and on the forecheck, getting the puck deep and pressuring the defence and forcing turnovers.”
Crandall, Ashton Hutchinson, defenceman Ben Belyea and netminder Luke Roberts are returning Sabres from the 13-15-5 team that tied for third in the nitro division of the north conference and in the playoffs finished 3-2 as division finalists.
“They know what it’s like to play in this league so it’s good for them to be able to pass along the experiences to the other guys on the team,” Ewaskiw said.
Crandall has been exceptional wearing the C while piling up the points.
“Melo definitely is a great captain. He’s done a very good job this year leading the boys especially in tight games. He likes to step up a little bit as well,” Ewaskiw said
In the AMBHL scoring race, the 14-year-old centreman is third in points with 38, second in goals with 24 in 23 games and first overall in power-play goals with eight.
“I’m just trying to focus on my work ethic,” Crandall said. “If I work as hard as I can then the points will come so I don’t really have to worry about that if I’m working as hard as I can.”
Crandall skated into his second AMBHL season after a modest five goals and 15 points in 33 games as a rookie Sabre.
“My goal was just to lead the team and do as best as I can and set an example for all the other players on the team and just have a good season,” said the Grade 9 Vincent J. Maloney School student.
Sunday’s 6-2 loss to the Calgary Royals (13-5-3) at Jarome Iginla Arena was one of the few games Crandall was held pointless. The previous weekend he potted both goals in the 3-2 loss to the host Sherwood Park Flyers (10-8-4) and sniped the tying marker in the 2-1 win over the Lloydminster Bobcats (9-4-6) on Raiders Day in St. Albert.
The result against the Royals marked the second setback in three games against Calgary teams.
“The south is very skilled. Calgary has got some really good teams with the three that we’ve seen so far,” said Ewaskiw of the Sabres falling short 5-1 to the Flames (16-3) after the 6-4 win against the Bisons (16-5-2) during a road trip in late October.
Against the Royals, period scores were 3-0 and 6-1 as the Sabres were outshot 41-32.
Adam Browton tallied twice for the Sabres with Kieran Strauss and Evan Zazulak assisting on both goals.
Adam Chin (8-2-1, 3.01 GAA) started before Roberts (9-3, 2.68 GAA) took over net duties with the Sabres down five goals.
“(The Royals) were on the road and played yesterday (7-4 Sunday against KC Squires) so they were ready to go whereas our guys they're at home, they're kind of focused on the Christmas break a little bit and sometimes the mind wanders so it’s a little bit of a blip on the radar. We call it a bit of a market correction,” Ewaskiw said. “It’s good for our guys to get a little bit of a wakeup call as well because when they’re playing well you can see that their habits start to go away a little bit because they thinking we’re beating everybody so our habits don’t have to be there.”
Extra emphasis will be placed on the team’s habits in preparation for the Reid tournament as the Sabres have pool games scheduled against the Balgonie (Sask.) Prairie Storm, Los Angeles Jr. Kings and St. George’s Saints of Vancouver.
“We know that we're not going to be the most skilled team that plays in the tournament based on the guys that are coming so our focus is on our habits, the right side of the puck, stopping on pucks, making sure that we're moving and working as a unit so our focus is all habit based to try and counter that to give ourselves the best position to succeed in that tournament,” said the head coach of the 2019 provincial champion St. Albert Flyers in the Alberta Minor Midget AAA Hockey League.
Last year’s Sabres finished 1-4 at the Reid tournament.
“There is a lot of good talented players there,” Crandall said. “It’s more difficult than our regular season, but we have the players and work ethic to do good in John Reid and we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing."
The next league game is Jan. 4 at the Oil Kings (12-9-1) in Leduc at 7:30 p.m.