As we have come to expect, the effort from the San Diego Sabers in their penultimate home game last Sunday afternoon at the Escondido Ice-Plex against the Valencia Flyers was conspicuous and admirable.
Not only did the Sabers show some real hustle but their commitment to the fore and backcheck was readily apparent. For this San Diego club, it has never been a question about want-to. More than anything else, the primary issues that have frustrated this young squad have been an inability to close out winnable games and a relative lack of scoring.
Those two shortcomings manifested themselves during a three-game weekend series versus the Flyers in which the Sabers were swept but had ample opportunity to put a win or two into the victory column.
After dropping tight 6-4 and 4-2 outcomes on successive nights, the Sabers were then blanked in the series finale by a count of 3-0. Despite the eventual outcomes, the Sabers were highly competitive in each of these contests and had to be shaking their heads about having to endure more near-misses.
In the Sunday wrap-up, the Flyers were the beneficiaries of a sparkling two-goal performance from skilled defenseman Daniel Klinecky while composed netminder Mack Willy was busy pitching a shutout by turning aside 43 shots. With their sixth straight win, the Flyers improved their overall record to 25-19-4 and solidified their fourth-place standing in the Western Division of the Western States Hockey League.
As for the Sabers, their latest loss dropped their seasonal slate to 4-41-4, which has them bringing up the rear in the stacked and rugged aforementioned West.
Entering the series with Valencia, the host Sabers were aware they were quite capable of hanging with the Flyers. In their previous encounters on February 16 and 17, the Sabers had been nipped in overtime before coming back to earn a 4-3 triumph on the strength of a pair of goals from shifty forward Cole Parker.
So it came as no surprise that San Diego pushed Valencia hard on Friday and Saturday nights before coming up short. The hungry Sabers were hoping that Sunday’s afternoon confrontation would provide a breakthrough with a different result.
And though the Sabers controlled their share of play throughout the initial 40 minutes of action and manufactured their share of chances, the home team found itself down by a 2-0 count.
The Flyers jumped ahead at the 10:31 mark of the first period when the resourceful Klinecky, after accepting a nice centering feed from Nickolai Gruzdev, punched home a doorstep shot past Saber goalie Zach Hale.
But then approximately seven minutes later, the Sabers were on the power play and would have tied matters had it not been for the stout work of Willy. First the Flyer backstop stopped a rifled shot from inside the blue line by talented defenseman Karel Kankovsky. Then, he used his shoulder to deflect a chip shot by a driving Biko Neuenschwander. Even more pressure was applied when Ryan Conover got in tight but Willy was right there to stuff that attempt. Finally, came another Kankovsky blast from the point but Willy was able to repulse this try with a stellar pad save. In rapid-fire succession, he blunted four shots and had virtually killed off the penalty singlehandedly.
Early in the second period Willy was back at it again when he blocked an open shot in the slot from Ryan Ollech before he denied Conover on a breakaway. Conover, a versatile defenseman who can skate, was sent off by a deft poke pass by Neuenschwander but his low shot that was ticketed for the right-bottom corner was neatly blanketed by Willy.
Kankovsky then gave the Sabers another promising chance but his wrist shot off a rush was also repelled.
Now, it was the Flyers’ turn to threaten—and did they ever make the most of it! Crossing into the Sabers’ zone, the visitors executed a textbook tic-tac-toe sequence in which Nicholas Hames sent a pass over to forward Dylan San Agustin, who was positioned in the left faceoff-circle. Almost instantaneously, San Agustin then whipped a feed over to Klinecky, all by his lonesome just off the crease. With the goalie Hale having no chance, Klinecky made no mistake as he flicked the puck into the net and—just like that—the Valencia lead had doubled.
At this stage, the Flyers were gaining in confidence and sought to add to their advantage but Hale kept things close with an alert close-in save on Jacob Ulestig and a nifty pad stop that denied Tristian Warr—which occurred right before he closed the door on a lurking San Agustin.
And as the period wound down, Willy continued to keep the Sabers at bay when he stoned Elisha Reece on a testing stuff-shot attempt.
It was early in the final 20 minutes that Ollech looked to get his club on the board after gathering in a rebound near the crease; only to be thwarted by a sweet Willy pad save. Hale then answered back when he got the best of a Bailey Prouty wrist shot that came off the end of a 2-on-1 break.
But shortly thereafter, the Flyers got the clincher with 8:53 remaining when San Agustin emerged from a scramble in front of the net and lofted a shot that Hale attempted to grab but couldn’t quite grasp. With the scoreboard now reading 3-0, it was game, set and match.
The lone drama yet remaining concerned whether the poised and technically sound Willy could hold off Sabers and post the shutout. And he had to be at his best late in the game when Reece broke out and unleashed a quick wrist shot that Willy managed to deflect away. And with that went the last Sabers threat.
Despite the defeat, there were plenty of Sabers who showed well. Prominent among them was Ondrej Imrich, a creative player, smooth skater and artful stickhandler. And though he didn’t score, Imrich authored some beautiful rushes that resulted in hard/accurate wrist and slap shots that put Willy to the challenge.
Hale (28 saves) deserves plenty of credit for making his share of key stops that allowed his team to stay within contact. Defensemen Kankovsky and Neuenschwander were factors at both ends of the ice. And forwards Parker, Ollech and Reece along with blueliner Conover produced some good scoring chances and delivered a consistent level of play.
The Sabers’ regular season will conclude with a home and home two-game series against Ontario this coming Friday and Saturday nights.
Going into the current campaign, this was expected to be a transitional year for a youthful squad that was operating under of a new regime when it came to ownership and coaching. The season’s goal was to start building a culture and foundation, hasten the development of the team’s young talent and demonstrate genuine improvement and growth along the way. And from that standpoint, those objectives have been accomplished, irrespective of the Sabers’ record.
And had they been a little more adept at closing the deal and putting a few more pucks in the net, that record would look quite a bit better. As it is, this is an organization that has taken the first positive steps towards becoming a factor for years to come in the WSHL. The journey upward had clearly begun.