Wolf Tracks: Win over Colts could prove a key rallying point

David Levin, middle, of the Sudbury Wolves, battles for the puck in front of goalie Arturs Silovs, of the Barrie Colts, during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday January 3, 2020. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network

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Circle Feb. 8 on your calendar.

I know the date has already passed, but it might just be a significant one.

If the Wolves can fend off the Mississauga Steelheads and Barrie Colts to win the OHL’s Central Division, a come-from-behind 6-4 win in Barrie last Saturday might have been this season’s TSN turning point.

The fact they won is huge, but how they did it is the exclamation point.

Had the Colts won that game, they’d currently be two points behind the Wolves with three games in hand. Instead, the Sudbury victory puts them six points ahead.

If the magnitude of those two points and their effect on the standings isn’t enough, the fact they did it without their best player in the lineup makes it considerably more special.

Down 3-0 in the first period, with Quinton Byfield in the stands due to a wrist injury, even the most optimistic of fans might have anticipated a collapse, a wilting under the pressure of the moment, especially given their track record in these situations over the last couple of seasons.

They struggled to win with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen away at the world juniors a year ago, and went into a similar tailspin this season with Byfield gone for the same tournament.

But on Saturday, the Wolves dug deep and found an impressive dose of resilience.

Ex-Colt Matej Pekar, with his first of three on the night, and then Blake Murray each scored in the last minute and a half of the opening period to cut the lead to 3-2, and the Wolves would score a pair in the second period and two more in the third to earn two critical points.

Little is guaranteed at this point, and you have to figure at least one of Mississauga or Barrie will push the Wolves right until the end — maybe both. But Saturday’s win in Barrie and a somewhat expected blowout against the rebuilding Niagara IceDogs at home on Sunday will restore a bit of confidence for the group.

While Pekar’s hat trick on Saturday and David Levin’s on Sunday were keys to the victories, it’s the secondary scoring and contributions from less likely sources with Byfield away that may also offer a rallying point.

Kosta Manikis, injury riddled in his rookie season, but with an obvious upside, scored the game winner in Barrie, tipping in a point shot after doing some dirty work along the boards to maintain possession of the puck. Manikis had three points in the two wins last weekend, as did Brad Chenier, who seems to be finding his groove as the newest member of his hometown team. Winger Owen Robinson also had six points in the two games, which is a great sign for the speedy winger who can be a real-difference maker down the stretch.

Even the fact that captain Macauley Carson, who scored twice against Niagara, went toe to toe with 6-foot-4, 230-pound Barrie defenceman Christopher Cameron is a reminder to his teammates that the Wolves have one of the toughest players in the league to back them up if and when the physical play ramps up.

Everyone knows the Wolves need Byfield healthy to be the best version of themselves, but finding success without him has to be a blessing in disguise for a team that probably needed to know they can do it alone if necessary. And so long as the injury fully heals as quickly as possible for the big NHL draft-eligible centre, a bit of time on the sidelines might not hurt him in the long run. It’s an opportunity to recharge the batteries after playing a ton of hockey in recent weeks.

The Wolves have not been a model of consistency this season, but they’ll get a chance to extend their modest two-game win streak against two teams near the bottom of the standings, when they host the Sarnia Sting on Friday and visit Niagara on Sunday. After that, they’ll face three of the OHL’s best in succession — starting with Peterborough on the holiday Monday and both Saginaw and Ottawa the following weekend on home ice.

Had the Wolves not fought back in Barrie, the narrative around the team would have been a lot different this week. It’s amazing how one victory can swing the theme of the story from panic to opportunity.

Of course, stringing wins together is the best way to ensure the next chapter doesn’t take a dark turn.

Jeff Giffen’s Wolf Tracks column runs weekly during the OHL season.

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