The St. Albert Gregg Distributors Sabres are sharpening their skills for a cutting-edge performance at the John Reid Memorial Tournament.
Winners of four in a row, the Sabres are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games after doubling the Sherwood Park Flyers 8-4 at home Monday in the last league game before the Christmas break.
“If you want to be the best you have to play the best. All the top teams are going to be at this tournament and we’re not going into it to see how we match up against them, we’re going in with the full intention of competing for the right to play in that final game,” said T.J. Woodward, head coach of the 11-8-3 Sabres. “Our goal from day one has been to have this team peaking right around the time for this tournament and the progress we’re making as we speak has us on track to reach that goal. We’re certainly going to go guns a-blazing. We’re going to make some noise during those four days, there is no doubt about that. I know the boys are super pumped and are geared up for that.
“It also comes at a perfect time as well. It happens right before playoffs too so obviously we want to be peaking right around this tournament so in early February when the season really starts with the playoffs we have our guys exactly where they need to be.”
The Sabres have two players – defenceman Matt Kasowski and forward Jack Langenhahn – returning from the team’s 2-3 showing at the 2013 tournament after losing their last four games in 2012 to wind up 1-4. They finished 2-3 in 2011.
The only St. Albert team to celebrate a tournament championship was the 1983 Territorial Leasing Sabres.
“It’s a world-class tournament and as far as bantam AAA is concerned you want to be in it with your team,” Woodward said.
The 36th annual St. Albert bantam AAA tournament goes Jan. 16 to 19 at Servus Credit Union Place. The 16-team draw features four international teams – HC Kometa Brno of the Czech Republic, Dallas Stars Elite, Los Angeles Jr. Kings and Phoenix Jr. Coyotes – plus 12 teams from across western Canada. The Sabres are among six teams from the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League.
In pool play at Northside Hyundai Arena on Jan. 16 the Sabres face off against the Winnipeg Monarchs at 11 a.m. and HC Kometa Brno in the 8 p.m. feature game and Jan. 17 against Okanagan Hockey Academy of Penticton at 2:15 p.m.
“We get to play the Czechs and I’m absolutely thrilled that we have a team from overseas in the tournament. I know I’m super excited as a coach just to be able to be in that game and I know our players are so looking forward to that. Win or lose it’s going to be such a great experience for them going forward,” Woodward said.
The Sabres have made significant strides towards the tournament after starting the season at 0-3.
“Ever since then things have absolutely turned around and I’ve got to credit the guys in our room,” Woodward said. “One of the messages we’re preaching is if this team is going to be successful it’s not going to be playing as individuals, it’s everyone playing together and everyone fighting for that common goal as one and not trying to get there individually.
“At the bantam level, with these kids being 13 and 14 years old, that can be a tough sell sometimes to have them understand what that message really means and I can’t think of a team that I’ve ever had in the past at this age that have been able to grasp that concept and what it really means. It took a little bit of time but they’re understanding some of the benefits of that message and that’s by putting up some Ws.
“Our record in December (4-1-1) certainly reflects the progress this team is making and I’m extremely happy with where we’re at right now.”
In the nitro north division the Sabres pulled to within three points of the third-place Flyers (13-9-2) with two games in hand against the team they lost 4-2 in Sherwood Park on Dec. 1.
Langenhahn, Aidan Steinke, Bret Mossing and Adrian Parth potted a pair each. Lucas Palladino added three assists and Langenhahn and affiliate Nick Leyer had two helpers apiece.
Steinke, the team’s top scorer with 10 goals and 21 points in 22 games, and Kasowski will represent the Sabres at the 24th annual AMBHL all-star game Jan. 11 at Bill Hunter Arena.
Chris Curr (4-4-3, 3.02 GAA), the Sabres’ Source for Sports player of the month for November, stopped a game-high 30 shots.
Curr and Nate Reinhart (7-4, 2.28 GAA), the Sabres’ player of the month for September/October, have combined for five shutouts for the second-best defensive team at 58 GA in the nitro north standings.
“You certainly have to give a lot of credit to our goalies. They’ve been unbelievable,” Woodward said. “We’ve been preaching and preaching how important it is to take care of our own zone and through the first couple of months we averaged probably 40 to 45 shots against each and every night but a lot of them have been from the perimeter and I give a lot of credit to the guys playing in front of the goalies as well. We’re keeping a lot of those shots to the outside.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve made it very clear to them that it’s time to start packing that perimeter and I think through the month of December we’re averaging 25, 26 shots against a night so you can see how the guys are buying in and taking that to heart and the shots against have really come down.”
Eight goals against the Flyers was a season-high for the Sabres, ranked fourth in the nitro north offensively at 69.
“We’ve got to start putting some pucks into the net now and the guys have taken that message to heart as well. I think through the month of December we’re averaging five goals for per game,” Woodward said. “The guys have listened to the message, taking it to heart and have really wanted to change it and again they’re reaping the benefits of buying into that system.”
The Sabres have also hung tough against the elite teams in the north. They knocked off the SSAC Southgate Lions (20-3) 5-3, as Reinhart was tested 45 times by the nitro north leaders. The Sabres also lost 3-2 and 4-3 to the Lions, three-time defending AMBHL champions and 2013 western Canadian gold medallists.
A scoreless draw against the Lloydminster Heat, the No. 1 AMBHL team at 23-1-1 in the charger north division, featured a 30-save effort by Curr, who has two shutouts.
“It’s reassuring to us as a coaching staff that when we’re playing against the top teams our guys are showing up to play. They’re not coming in with the mindset that these guys are really good and we’re in for a tough one here tonight. They’re coming in with the mindset that we’re going to compete and get two points off these guys,” Woodward said. “There is no real easy games in the north in general, and our division is tough. It’s not an enviable division to be in but you’re going to learn a lot more playing the top teams than just having teams you can walk over night in and night out. There is a benefit having those tough teams. It certainly gets you geared up for playoffs.”
The Sabres resume league play Thursday against the Spruce Grove PAC Saints (20-3) at 7 p.m. at Akinsdale Arena.