It is now official. There can no longer be any doubt. The hottest team in Escondido and the best ticket in town is one and the same – namely the San Diego Sabers.
Playing at a remarkably high level and capitalizing on a surging momentum that is now reaching franchise record proportions, the Sabers won a seventh consecutive game and an 11th out of their past 12 with a 2-0 shutout win over the Las Vegas Thunderbirds last Sunday afternoon at the local Ice-Plex.
The aforementioned victory capped a weekend sweep of the T-Birds in which the visitors were totally stifled by a Sab defense that allowed but a solitary goal over the three-game set.
Moreover, San Diego (19-11-1-1) continues to make a dramatic ascent in the five-team Western Division of the Western States Hockey League. Having now earned 60 points, the Sabers find themselves firmly entrenched in second place while taking dead aim at division leading Fresno (66 points). In what could be a season-defining matchup, SD will travel north for a two-game series with the Monsters this coming Friday and Saturday nights. With a couple of wins there, the Sabs will be breathing so closely down the necks of the Central California lads that the Monsters should be able to tell exactly what mouthwash the locals have been using.
To say the Sabs got it done over the weekend wouldn’t begin to tell the story. They virtually suffocated Vegas with their tight defensive coverage, relentless hustle, forceful checking and absolute want-to.
On Friday evening they kicked things off with a 3-1 win that featured a goal and assist from productive Trevor Wittkopf and a 29-save outing courtesy of goaltender Ludwig Nordqvist.
The following night it was Cal Hunter who shone between the pipes as he turned aside 32 shots en route to blanking the T-Birds 3-0. Offensively, it was Wittkopf, Deniss Berdniks and Joel Rothman who lit the lamp while forward Petter Kjellin was a distributor deluxe as he handed out three assists.
That brought matters to Sunday’s matinee finale with the Sabs looking to break out the brooms and do some serious sweeping.
It took but 18 seconds into the first period for the Sabers to strike. Spying a loose puck at the left of the cage, the resourceful Rothman gathered it in and then slid a shot along the ice that easily beat Vegas goalie Jesper Ahlberg. “We put some pressure on them deep and a lucky bounce came my way,” said Rothman. “I just happened to be in the right spot.”
The Sabers were destined to take that slim advantage into the third period when once again they cashed in quickly with less than three minutes having expired. Things were initiated when steady defenseman Berdniks blasted a shot from the right point that went wide right. But unexpectedly, the puck slammed off the back boards and ricocheted directly out in front where an alert Quinn Patenaude was right there to punch it home; thereby expanding SD’s margin to 2-0.
Given the way the Sabers were locking down on defense and the confident manner in which SD netminder Mikulas Pluhacek was protecting the fort, that was more than enough to ensure that the game was all but sewed up. But there were still moments yet to come that would keep the crowd entertained and engaged.
As the period was winding down, Rothman broke from the penalty box and collected a perfect pass that sent him away on a breakaway that if successful, would have padded the Sabers lead. But it was a no soap as goalie Ahlberg refused to budge or commit. With little choice left, Rothman had to settled for a close in wrist shot that has little mustard on it. “Hey, give him credit,” praised Rothman while thinking about a juicy chance gone awry. “He waited me out and forced me to make the first move.”
Then a bit later, tempers flared between Vegas’s physical forward Austen Kerridge and Saber defenseman Hunter Howe. Kerridge was already in a foul mood after having gotten into an earlier scrum with SD’s Ondrej Vaculik. He also seemed anxious to find a way to vent his frustration over his team’s failures. Regardless of his motive, the sizeable Kerridge got the drop on the much smaller Howe and began unleashing a flurry of blows. But much to his credit, Howe recouped quickly and countered by firing back with some telling punches of his own. And for a brief period of time, the confrontation evolved into a classic toe-to-toe bout. Kerridge may have been awarded a slight decision but Howe had impressed with the manner in which he stood his ground and made the bigger man feel the sting of his fists.
Thanks in large part to the admirable efforts of Ahlberg, the visitors were able to stay in the hunt and keep it close. The Vegas backstop registered 44 saves and turned aside a number of testing shots.
As for his counterpart Pluhacek (26 stops), though he didn’t see nearly as much rubber as did Ahlberg, the youngster’s positional play was rock solid. Perhaps Pluhacek’s most dynamic save came when he showed great anticipation by sliding across the crease before denying Joseph Terrana’s wrister that seemed ticketed for the back of the net.
In every way imaginable, this was a total team effort by the Sabers. Looking up and down the lineup, you found contributors galore.
There was the versatile and smooth Rothman who logged heavy minutes while taking a regular shift as well as participating on the power play and penalty kill. When asked about his individual performance, he politely begged off. “I’m not a me guy,” he said convincingly. “I’d rather talk about the other guys, like how well our defense played.”
Meanwhile, Howe was an absolute revelation on the blue line with the way he skated crisply, quarterbacked from the point, did his share of hitting and passed with aplomb.
Other defenseman of import were the active Tor Svensson, gifted Benjamin Aakesson who delivered some crunching checks, impactful Weston Olsen, speedy Dylan Travis and the reliable Berdniks.
The forwards were no less instrumental with their hustle, willingness to bang in the corners and determination to make Ahlberg’s day uncomfortable. Guys like Caleb Travis, Cole Rorick, Kejellin, William Baird, Petr Teuber, Vaculik, Patenaude, Samuel Kapusta and Dante Hubick all had their moments and clearly factored into the eventual result.
Though he will never be the type to be content or satisfied, the Sabers’ forthright and driven coach David Vychodil nonetheless readily acknowledged his squad’s spirited play on Sunday. “It was just a great team effort,” related the coach. “Because the guys have bought into the system, we are really playing together as a unit. But we will continue to talk about being consistent and relentless. I don’t want this team to ever think it can take even one shift off. And sure, it’s fine to be confident but it can be dangerous to be cocky and I just won’t let that happen to us.”
So based upon their conspicuous cohesiveness, keen determination and having a coach who figures to keep a watchful eye over them, there’s no reason why the Sabers can’t keep moving forward. “We’re just gonna continue to work hard, bring high energy and try to keep the flame going,” said Rothman.
Already the best team in Escondido, who says the Sabers can’t get even better?