Crunch push Eskimos to brink of elimination

IROQUOIS FALLS - The Cochrane Crunch pushed the Abitibi Eskimos to the brink of elimination Wednesday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.

Daniel Stagg’s natural hat-trick and steady goaltending from Brett Young led the visitors to a 4-1 win over the Eskimos in Game 4 of their NOJHL East Division best-of-seven semifinal series.

A win Friday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane will seal the deal for the Crunch, who head home with a 3-1 advantage in the series.

Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard was pleased with the complete effort put forth by his team Wednesday night.

“We have only played about four minutes of bad hockey this whole series (in Game 3 in Cochrane Monday night) and it bit us in the butt,” he said.

“It was a bit of a wake-up call for us, but tonight was a total team effort, from our goaltender to our defence, to our forwards, everybody did their job.

“It shouldn’t take for me to call out our best players in the media to get them going, but you know what we scored four goals tonight and our first line scored all four of them.

“They just needed a bit of a wake-up call.”

Stagg and his linemates — Cody Gratton and Josh Racek — were called out by Leonard following the Crunch’s 4-2 loss in Game 3 in Cochrane Monday night.

The line responded by scoring all four of their team’s goals during Wednesday night’s victory.

The Crunch had a game plan heading into Game 4 and they stuck to that game plan.

“We stayed in their face at all times,” Leonard said.

“We got lots of pucks to the net and again, if it wasn’t for (Eskimos goalie) Chet Tooker in the first period we could have walked out of there up 5-0.

“He made three unbelievable saves to keep them in the hockey game. I feel bad for that poor kid because the shot clock didn’t move for almost half a period and we had about six or seven shots that were quality shots.

“That kid did a great job again tonight and he should be proud of himself.”

Leonard was also happy with the play of his puck stopper, Young.

“Brett was good,” he said.

“He said he got to see all the pucks and our D were blocking shots for him. We probably blocked somewhere between five and 10 shots tonight.

“Guys were getting their bodies in front of the shots tonight and that is how you win hockey games, is having everybody sacrificing for the team.

“That is what you saw tonight. Tonight was a pivotal game. We needed to win this game tonight to go up 3-1.

“Now it is up to us to go and finish it (the series) off Friday night in our barn.”

The game that finishes off a series, of course, is always one of the toughest ones to win.

“We don’t have to change nothing, just keep doing what we have done all series,” Leonard said.

“Our tops guys finally woke up tonight and we started getting the breaks.”

Gratton got the ball rolling when he beat Tooker with an even-strength goal 8:51 into the first period.

Brady Clouthier scored a power-play goal with just five seconds remaining in the opening frame to tie things up at 1-1 heading into the first intermission.

The Crunch responded with some last minute heroics of their own, in the second period when Stagg took a seemingly harmless pass from the corner and buried the puck behind Tooker with 45 seconds remaining on the clock to put Cochrane in front 2-1.

The Eskimos Killer Bs line — Clouthier, Brenden Locke and Brennan Roy — buzzed all around the Crunch net early in the third period, with each member of the line having the puck bounce over or off of their sticks to spoil solid scoring opportunities.

A few minutes later Stagg provided the Crunch with a little breathing room, as he put the rebound of a Gratton shot into a wide-open net behind Tooker.

That goal killed any momentum the Eskimos had established and Stagg’s third goal of the game, five minutes later, finished the home side off and made the final score 4-1.

Stagg was a force driving to the net all night long.

“This goalie lets out a lot of rebounds and the coach told all of us to go to the net and we would be rewarded and that is what I did,” he said.

The three goals Stagg scored Wednesday night were his first goals of the playoffs.

“On my third goal, Cody shot the puck off the side of the net and it went in off my stick somehow,” Stagg said.

“On my second goal, Cody threw it in front of the net, it bounced off the goalie’s pad and came straight to me and I just put it in.”

With all the excitement of winning a big game, the Killarney, Man., product was at a loss to remember how he scored his first goal of the night.

Despite being down 3-1 in the series, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne is not about to concede anything.

“It is hard to close a series,” he said.

“It really is, so we are going to come back on Friday because we know we can play better. We know we made mistakes. It is individual stuff, but it happens. You just don’t want it to happen in the playoffs.”

From Gagne’s perspective, there was no secret about when the momentum in the hockey game switched.

“It was the second goal that took the wind out of our sails here,” Gagne said.

“We had outshot them 10-8. It was a great period. We dominated. We played great. We gave them three shots from the slot, compared to the first period.

“We had played such a great period and then bang. Look what happens.

“And then in the third period, we had our chances, we had power plays, but we made a few mistakes and you know what happens when you make mistakes, you give up goals against.”

Gagne knows that the Eskimos have to do Friday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane if they hope to beat the Crunch and force a Game 6 back in Iroquois Falls.

“We have to keep our heads up and we have to keep working at it,” he said.

Young made 39 saves to register the win for the Crunch, while Tooker was credited with 29 stops for the Eskimos and he was tagged with the loss.

NOJHL NOTES — The Eskimos went 1-7 on the power play, while the Crunch were 0-3 with the man advantage … The official attendance at the Jus Jordan Arena was 767, with many of those in the crowd cheering for the Crunch … Wednesday night’s other NOJHL action saw the Powassan Voodoos defeat the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners 4-3 to take a 3-1 lead in the other East Division semifinal and the Elliot Lake Wildcats edge the Sudbury Nickel Barons 4-3 to tie that West Division semifinal series at 2-2. The Soo Thunderbirds swept their West Division semifinal series with the Blind River Beavers 4-0 …. Game 5 in the East Division semifinal between the Eskimos and the Crunch will be played at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane Friday, at 7:30 p.m.