IROQUOIS FALLS - All four of the Kirkland Lake’s regulation losses this season have come on the road — including a 2-1 setback against the Abitibi Eskimos at the McIntyre Arena in Timmins on Sept. 19.
The Eskimos will be looking to add to that total when they host the Gold Miners in the first half of a home-and-home series at the Jus Jordan Arena Friday night.
Adding to the intrigue of this weekend’s home-and-home series is the fact that the Eskimos and the Gold Miners swung a three-player trade on Nov. 18 that saw Abitibi obtain forward Cosimo Amore and defenceman Nick Hautanen, a Timmins native, in exchange for defenceman Jamey Lauzon.
It was the second transaction of the season between the two squads, as earlier in October the Eskimos obtained forward Patrick Picard, a Hearst native, in a cash transaction.
“As soon as I got traded here, I marked those games on my calendar,” said Picard. “I am really looking forward to it, to get some revenge on them. It is going to be nice. I know Nick and Cosimo are really looking forward to it, too. We will be playing hard this weekend against Kirkland Lake.”
While Picard is determined to help the Eskimos get a couple of wins this weekend, he has nothing but respect for the Gold Miners’ program and the time he spent in Kirkland Lake.
“I have lots of good memories from Kirkland Lake,” he said. “I won a championship with them last year.”
Picard still keeps in touch with a few of his former Gold Miners teammates.
“Zach Pease is probably one of my best friends from there and I talk to him almost every day,” Picard said. “We keep in touch, for sure.”
Pease, a 20-year-old Toronto native, has missed most of the season because of an injury, but returned to the Gold Miners lineup on Nov. 14 and should see action in both weekend games, which is good news for the team’s coach and general manager Marc Lafleur.
“He brings leadership, he brings the grit element, that I think at times when he was gone we needed,” Lafleur said. “He is a 200-foot player. He is one of those guys who may not be on the score sheet all the time, but he does so much for our hockey team, in terms of penalty kill, in terms of leadership and adding grit and speed to our lineup.”
The secret to success, from Lafleur’s perspective, will be to have the Gold Miners play their game this weekend.
“We want to try to have them have to adjust to us, as compared to the other way around,” he said. “A big key for us, as well, is to make sure we capitalize on our chances. A big reason why we lost to Powassan was that we did have our chances, but we just didn’t hit the net.
“So, we are going to have to make sure we capitalize on our chances that we get against them.
“And we are going to have to try to win the special teams game. We know they have a great penalty kill. I think they are leading the league, so trying to get some success against their kill is going to be a huge factor, as well.”
One of the keys to the Gold Miners’ success so far this season has been a balanced attack.
Steven Babin (23, 12-33-45, 10) is tied for the NOJHL scoring lead, but the Gold Miners have also gotten plenty of offence from Luc Soares (21, 15-11-26, 18), Connor Thie (16, 9-17-26, 10), Tristen Hazlett (20, 10-13-23, 8), Ryan Swain (22, 9-14-23, 18), Jeremy Dumont (21, 9-12-21, 8), Timmins native Tyler Romain (23, 8-11-19, 11), Joel Fortin (22, 8-8-16, 4) and Charles Bruneau-Crete (22, 9-3-12, 6).
Plus recent additions, such as Ryan Aubertin (9, 8-9-17, 2) and Vincent Currao (6, 2-2-4, 12), have helped to make a very deep lineup even deeper, as has the return of Pease (6, 1-4-5, 2).
“I would say that we have three lines that can really put the puck in the net, but at the end of the day, every single one of our players knows that they have to play 200 feet if they want their ice time,” Lafleur said.
The Gold Miners also have solid goaltending, with the tandem of Josh Erickson (566:50, 1, 2.33, .912) and Timmins native Devon Debastos (535:09, 2, 2.35, .905).
Perhaps the biggest strength of the Gold Miners, however, is their deep blue-line, anchored by Jeremy Picard-Fiset (23, 3-24-27, 10, Ethan Strong (21, 8-10-18, 8) and Dylan Rosen (23, 5-14-19, 24).
“I think our blue-line has been the staple of our success the last two years,” Lafleur said. “Not taking anything away from our goaltending and our forwards, but it is going to happen every game where you have a defenceman not on his ‘A’ game, but at least you know you can rely on two others.
“And possible now, with the addition of Lauzon, we can definitely rely on our blue-line to make sure that if two guys may be off that one night, the others will be able to pick up the slack.”
Lafleur was impressed by Lauzon’s play during his first two games in a Gold Miners uniform on the weekend.
“I knew what we were getting in terms of feistiness, grit and compete level, but he really impressed us in terms of puck management and decision making,” he said. “He was very calm and collected with the puck and, as I said before, he may be 17 in age but he definitely plays like a 19 or 20 year old out there.
You would never think he is that young.”
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne will be looking for his team to continue the strong play that has enabled it to accumulate a record of 5-1-0-1 in its past seven games.
“Our forecheck has been relentless,” he said. “If we can get that forecheck going this weekend against Kirkland Lake, it will make a big difference.
“You are playing 200 feet from your net and there are fewer mistakes and if you do make a mistake 200 feet from your net, your odds of being scored on are really slim.
“Our defence have been moving the puck well and we have been taking a lot more shots on net.
“We made a few more turnovers in the neutral zone in the third period (of Saturday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to Cochrane), which we are not happy about but we have been limiting them.
“The kids have really been comprehending what we have been asking them to do.”
Another reason for the Eskimos’ recent success has been the additions they have made to the lineup, including forwards Jake Holland (6, 2-9-11, 4) and Tristan Salesse (5, 1-6-7, 2).
“We have more horses and we have a little more depth in our lineup,” Gagne said. “It makes a difference.”
Game time for both Friday’s game at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls and Saturday’s game at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex in Kirkland Lake is 7:30 p.m.