When the San Diego Sabers blew past the visiting South Oregon Spartans by scores of 6-0 and 8-2 during the first two games of a weekend set, there was no doubt they were taking care of business.
But entering Sunday’s afternoon finale at the Escondido Iceoplex, one question was yet to be answered. Namely, could they put the hammer down and complete a three-game sweep that would extend their winning streak to a season best four contests?
Well, after a complacent first period, followed by a stern talking-to by their no-nonsense head coach David Vychodil, the Sabers roused themselves in conspicuous fashion and drubbed the Spartans by a final count of 6-1
The overall display the Sabs put on during the last 40 minutes of action was impressive to say the least. They were relentless in their effort. They checked with commitment and played with noticeable discipline. They busily buzzed around Spartan goaltender Chris O’Shaughnessy and exerted a physical presence up and down the ice. And while their offense was getting into gear, their defense was basically going into lockdown mode. With all the above elements meshing together, the Spartans literally had, pardon the pun, no shot. In short, San Diego simply overwhelmed them.
Unquestionably, this was a win that revealed the fingerprints of many. The tall and surprisingly speedy Ondrej Vaculik was a truly dominant performer while tallying a pair of goals and adding an assist. Active Samuel Kapusta always seemed to be in thick of things as his one goal and three helpers suggested.
The hustling Caleb Travis was a definite factor while en route to lighting the lamp twice. Diminutive Petr Teuber put his noticeable skills to good use by posting both a goal and an assist. Then there was Bradyn Barone, a slick puck moving defenseman who chipped in with a couple of timely feeds.
Others also made their influence known. Stalwart blueliners Joel Rothman and Benjamin Aakesson were rock steady and at times dynamic while goalie Cal Hunter, though not overly pressed, still made his share of key saves that kept the Spartans relatively quiet and at bay.
Moreover, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that every Saber who took to the ice made a contribution. It seemed that no matter who was sent out to compete, he left a mark. Team efforts rarely come more complete than this one.
The fact that the Sabs had downed the visitors from the Northwest three straight times didn’t exactly come as a surprise. After all, the scuffling Spartans arrived for the series opener in the throes of a lengthy 14-game losing streak. Based upon the records of the respective teams and the manner in which things were trending, San Diego was definitely a prohibitive favorite to sweep the Spartans aside. But in the world of hockey, regardless of perceptions and predictions, virtually nothing is guaranteed. A team can’t expect to get results against any opponent if it opts to merely go through the motions.
And one of the truest measures that a club is coming of age is that it consistently beats lesser squads and wins when expected. Failure in this regard justifiably brings into question the legitimacy of any team. But after their rather indifferent start, the Sabs proved they have the wherewithal to repeatedly subdue what must be considered an inferior opponent.
The sweep over the Spartans not only improved SD’s overall record to 12-10-1-1 but just as importantly, it vaulted the Sabs (39 points) into a second-place tie with Las Vegas in the Western Division of the Western States Hockey League. Moreover, the Sabers continued to show that they know how to protect their house with a ninth win in 14 meetings at home.
Though they were undeniably in the midst of an exceedingly rough patch, give the Spartans (3-20-0-0) credit for coming out Sunday with an energy and determination that belied their underwhelming record. And that spirited play was rewarded less than five minutes into the contest when forward Yuval Halpert went top shelf to beat Sab goalie Hunter with a superbly placed shot.
However, not appearing at all shaken by that turn of events, the Sabers offered an immediate response a mere 28 seconds later to knot the score at 1 apiece. Breaking into the Spartans’ end on a 2 on 1 rush, the heady Kapusta slipped a sweet pass over to Vaculik who made no mistake when he punched the puck past O’Shaughnessy from out in front.
That equalizing score notwithstanding, Vychodil wasn’t pleased with what he saw from his club during the first 20 minutes. During the intermission, he laid into them about what he perceived to be a casual attitude and for assuming that the Spartans would simply roll over based upon what had happened the previous two nights. “Our guys acted like they thought it was going to be easy,” said the coach. “I told them yesterday is history and it’s how you play today that matters.”
Obviously, the Sabs got the message because they awoke from their semi lethargy with a three-goal second period that proved decisive. After being stopped just moments before, Kapusta made the most of another chance as he netted a shot from just off the left doorstep a scant 42 seconds into the action.
Less than five minutes later, the Sabs struck again to expand their lead to 3-1. Taking a sensational breakout pass from the gifted Barone, the 5-8 Teuber swept in alone and flicked a wrister that O’Shaughnessy couldn’t handle.
It was at this juncture that Hunter loomed large when he delivered a pivotal save on Jeremy Vant Geloof’s dangerous attempt before stoning Pavel Bykov on both a chest high wrist shot as well as a partial breakaway. Though he would go on to record 26 saves in a workmanlike effort, Hunter was arguably at his best during this stretch.
Buoyed by their goaltender’s solid work between the pipes, the Sabs then added to their advantage at the 8:27 mark of the period when Raymond Kelly came up with a nifty steal and fed the active Travis out front who neatly poked it home.
Up by a count of 4-1 entering the last period and with their defense really beginning to crack down, the Sabers had this one in the refrigerator but well aware of their coach’s demands, they weren’t about to let up. The Sabs padded the scoresheet with a couple more tallies that featured a deadeye shot by Vaculik that whistled just below the crossbar and another Travis goal that he somehow managed to finesse behind the beleaguered O’Shaughnessy who appeared to get a piece of the puck.
To say that the Spartan goalie had faced an inordinate amount of rubber during the course of the game wouldn’t begin to tell the tale. By the time the final horn sounded, it was a wonder that O’Shaughnessy had enough left in the tank to skate over to the bench given that he had been peppered by a stunning 74 shots on goal.
When asked whether his team is now developing that elusive chemistry that wasn’t apparent earlier in the season when injuries and a constant shuffling of players complicated the mix, Vychodil admitted that cohesion is definitely taking place. “Yes, it looks like it is happening,” he agreed. “But we’ve got to keep working hard at it and keeping the players on their toes so that the effort is always there.”
But the coach is encouraged by the knowledge that he can roll out multiple lines and get bona fide production from plenty of sources. And the depth that he possesses with his defensive pairings is another tangible asset.
Add to those positives the fact that the goaltending chores seem in the capable hands of a promising trio as evidenced by what occurred over the weekend when Ludwig Nordqvist pitched a shutout on Friday, youthful Mikulas Pluhacek repelled 34 shots the following night and then Hunter turned in his efficient performance in the wrap-up tilt. “We have trust in all of them,” said assistant/goalie coach Frank Brazdil while indicating that there is really no particular pecking order among the three. “If they continue to practice hard and work on the mental side of their game, each one of them is capable of doing a great job.”
Yes, there can be no question that the Sabers are a club that is clearly jelling and coming together at a most opportune time. As such, it’s going to be interesting to see just what heights this team can reach if its demonstrable progression over the last few weeks continues on.