IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos are dead, long live the …
Josh Racek’s empty-net goal, his second of the game, with 25 seconds remaining on the clock sealed the Cochrane Crunch’s 5-3 win over the Eskimos at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night and handed the visitors their best-of-seven NOJHL East Division semifinal series 4-2.
It officially marked the end of the home side’s 16-year stay in Iroquois Falls — the final 13 as the “Abitibi” Eskimos, after being known for three seasons as the Iroquois Falls Jr. Eskis.
The franchise will be relocated to the McIntyre Arena in Timmins in time for the 2015-16 NOJHL campaign and will undergo a name change, as well.
Team officials expect to announce the name and branding the Timmins Junior ‘A’ franchise will play under by the end of the month.
For the Crunch, Saturday night’s outcome ends a succession of seasons marked by first-round exits from the playoffs.
“I was really relieved,” said Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard.
“To tell you the truth, I was ready to fire myself if we didn’t win this series. It would have been three years in a row that we would have gone to Game 7 and lost.
“I haven’t slept in the last three days, so this just feels like there is a ton of weight off of my shoulders.
“Now we are on to the second round.
“I couldn’t ask for a better effort from the boys tonight, from our forwards to our defence, to our goaltender.
“I don’t know how many blocked shots we had again tonight. I know (Dylan) Sakatch alone blocked six and (Jason) Berube blocked a couple and (Brandon) Plourde blocked a couple.
“You know what, that is what it takes to win hockey games like this.”
The Crunch jumped out to a 1-0 first-period lead Saturday night, as Berube was able to fire a rebound past Logan Ferrington — making his first start of the series after returning from a six-game suspension — after fellow Crunch forward Sakatch crashed into the Eskimos goalie in his crease.
There was no goaltender interference call on the play, however, and the Crunch carried the 1-0 advantage into the second period.
Racek beat Ferrington at the 4:38 mark of the period to increase the Cochrane lead to 2-0.
The Eskimos finally got on the board less than four minutes later, when Brennan Roy beat Crunch goalie Brett Young from in close to pull his team to within one goal.
A Ryan Fletcher power-play goal late in the period increased the Crunch lead to 3-1 heading into the third period.
When Dustin Cordeiro scored 3:21 into the frame to give the Crunch a 4-1 advantage it appeared the Eskimos’ fate might be sealed.
They would not go down without a fight, however as Tristan Salesse fired a wrist shot past Young off a faceoff to the right of the goalie to cut the Crunch lead to 4-2.
Then, just over two minutes later, Brennan Roy scored a power-play goal to pull the Eskimos to within one goal of getting back on even terms.
Leonard called a timeout to try and settle his team down and it worked.
“We called that timeout and calmed everybody down,” he said.
“We missed two assignments and it cost us two goals. There was one right off the faceoff where our winger never picked up their winger. And on their third goal, we had a chance to get it out and we didn’t get it out.
“It (the timeout) was a good momentum builder that allowed us to hold things together.”
The coach was pleased with the team-first effort of the Crunch Saturday night.
“Cody Gratton is still trying to get his legs back, but Racek finally got two goals tonight,” Leonard said.
“Everybody contributed. During that four-minute power-play (a double minor and game misconduct to Eskimos forward Cosimo Amore) and none of our power-play units could get anything going, so I said to hell with it and threw the fourth line out there for the last 20 seconds and Fletcher scored a goal on his only shift of the game.
“Our defencemen were just great tonight. Max Glashauser and (Joey) Mavrin and Plourde and (Dustin) Deugau, all four of them were doing an excellent job back there.”
Even though Ferrington had beaten the Crunch in three-straight regular-season meetings, the Crunch were happy to see him between the pipes Saturday night instead of Chet Tooker, who had started the first five games of the series.
“Chet Tooker was in our heads,” Leonard said.
“The boys were pretty excited when they found out the game was starting and Ferrington was in there. We were a little relieved because Chet was in our heads and we had been talking about that since yesterday (Friday).
“I think Abitibi did us a favour tonight.”
The Eskimos kept pressing for the equalizer and pulled Ferrington in favour of an extra attacker with about a minute remaining to play in the third period.
The move backfired, however, as Racek deposited his second goal of the game into the empty Eskimos’ net.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was philosophical about Saturday night’s loss.
“We just couldn’t find our mojo in the first period,” he said.
“We could get her going. We made more turnovers in the first period than we did in all of last night’s game.
“It got us frustrated a little bit and the next thing you know it was 2-1 and then 3-1.”
Despite losing the game and the series, Gagne is proud of the way the Eskimos played in their final season at the Jus Jordan Arena.
“They are a great bunch of young men,” he said.
“They were always first class this season and they battled right to the end. They showed class on and off the ice, in the dressing room, in practice, they always worked hard.”
Young made 26 saves to register the win for the Crunch, while Ferrington turned aside 29 shots and was tagged with the loss for the Eskimos.
Gagne stands by his decision to start Ferrington in net over Tooker.
“Chet made some incredible saves in this series and he kept us in there, but there are two reasons why we went with Logan,” he said.
“Psychologically, Cochrane did not want to have Logan in the net and the reason for that brings us to the second reason. He carries himself really well in the net. He takes care of his rebounds. He is solid in there and he was 3-0 against them this year.”
Young was relieved to see the final seconds click off the clock.
“I knew we just had to keep our composure and have faith in our ability to finish the game,” he said.
“We just needed to play hard and play defensively like we had the whole game.
“We played strong defence the whole playoffs and we were able to minimize their chances, for the most part.
“Our defence playing in front of me were amazing throughout the whole series. Hopefully we can keep it going.
“Our team was just so hungry for it (winning the series). We all wanted it and we were willing to do whatever it took to win games, whether it was blocking shots, or backchecking.”
NOJHL NOTES —The Crunch will now await the winner of the other NOJHL East Division semifinal series between the defending champion Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and the Powassan Voodoos. The Voodoos lead that series 3-2 heading into Game 6 Sunday night … The Eskimos went 1-3 on the power-play, while the Crunch were 1-5 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Jus Jordan Arena was 865.