IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos gave their fans an early Christmas present Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
Defenceman Ryan Kerr beat Sudbury goalie Michael Muzyka with a seeing-eye shot with 43 seconds remaining in the first overtime period to lift the Eskimos to a 4-3 win over the visiting Sudbury Nickel Barons.
“I received the puck at the blue line and I saw that everyone was down low, so I decided to take my time and make sure to hit the net and it just went in,” Kerr said.
Kerr, who has two goals this season, agreed that Saturday night’s game-winner was his biggest goal of the season.
“A win like this shows character for our team,” he said.
“We were down 3-2 and we came back and played hard and we won. It’s a good feeling to go into the Christmas break on a high.”
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was also pleased to see his team skate off with two points.
“I thought we had a better third period,” he said.
“The first couple of periods, we had our chances, especially in the first, but he (Muzyka) made some key saves.
“We sort of … not flat lined, but were just sitting on the fence, basically, and I believe they played the same way … just waiting for their chances … and then in the third period … I can’t say we dominated, but we showed a little bit more life than we did in the first two periods.
“We pursued the puck and we put pressure on them and put pressure on the puck carrier at all times. We had good dump-ins and we had a couple of good shots … better shots and better opportunities and we capitalized on a couple of them. That made the difference.”
The Eskimos were down 3-2 heading into the third period, but they got the equalizer when Ryan Wildman stuffed a cross-crease pass behind Muzyka for his 10th goal of the season with just under 10 minutes to play in regulation.
“I thought he was going to capitalize on one of his earlier chances, especially the one where (Landon) Hiebert gave him the nice pass,” Gagne said.
“And then he had another one on a two-on-one, but he didn’t miss on the tying goal, that’s for sure.”
Sudbury struck first Saturday night when Dylan Callaghan beat Eskimos goalie Brody Wagner for the only goal of the first period to put the visitors in front 1-0 heading into the dressing room for the first intermission.
The Eskimos got back on even terms 3:12 into the second period on Brennan Roy’s goal.
In took the Nickel Barons just over three minutes to get the lead back, however, as Brody Brunet blasted a slap shot past Wagner from the right point for a power-play goal.
Brady Clouthier’s team-leading 23rd goal of the season pulled the Eskimos back to even terms just over two minutes later, but Brunet scored his second goal of the period to put Sudbury back in front 3-2.
Wagner seemed to be surprised on the play, as Brunet snapped the puck past him just after an Eskimos defenceman lost his balance and fell to the ice.
Gagne pulled Wagner in favour of Sylvain Miron to start the third period and the move seemed to pay off.
“It was just a matter of trying to change the momentum,” Gagne said.
“I explained to the players that it was not because Wags was playing bad, or anything like that. We were just sitting on that fence and we were flat lining a bit. I didn’t like the feeling, so I explained to the players that we needed a little bit of life.
“That’s what it was, just for motivation.
“And he (Miron) made a couple of big saves there for us, especially on that breakaway, on the glove-hand side.”
Miron actually stopped a pair of breakaways during the third period and made a number of other big saves, although he also had a little bit of luck on his side. One Sudbury shot clanged off the cross bar, while another hit a post dead on.
Assistant coach Daniel Charbonneau was behind the bench for the Nickel Barons Saturday night, as the team has made a coaching change.
The team has hired Jason Young to take over for Trevor Blanchard, who was relieved of his duties after being charged with impaired driving and other criminal code offences by Greater Sudbury Police, but Young was not available for Saturday night’s game.
“You have to give credit where credit is due,” Charbonneau said.
“I think we played a full 60 minutes, but we came up short. We got the short end of the stick unfortunately, but we told the kids that they should hold their heads up high. It was a well-fought battle.
“Unfortunately we are going to get those short comings every now and then.”
The Nickel Barons can take some solace from the fact that they managed to secure at least one point for the third straight game.
“We fought back and we got to salvage the one point, which was key,” Charbonneau said.
“We are hurting for points right now, so we will take whatever we can get.
“I think it was a great game for both teams.”
Muzyka, who faced 45 shots from the Eskimos, earned praise from the Nickel Barons assistant coach.
“Mike played phenomenal, that’s the second game now where he has really played strong for us,” Charbonneau said.
“Goaltending is a strong part of our team and we are extremely pleased that Mike has found his game. We are extremely pleased with the way he has been playing.”
One of the reasons for the Nickel Barons’ recent improved play has been that a number of their injured players have started to return to the lineup.
“We are starting to play our type of hockey right now, which is good to see,” Charbonneau said.
“Like you say, we have had points in our last three games, so that’s a big positive. We just have to keep going along. We are a little bit past the halfway point of the season and teams are starting to gel.
“We have been beat up across the board, our forwards, our defence, but we are starting to get some bodies back and we are seeing a lot of positive things.”
It was the 10th-straight victory on home ice for the Eskimos, who trail the third-place Espanola Rivermen by two points in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League standings.
ESKIMOS NOTES: The Eskimos went 0-5 on the power play, while the Nickel Barons were 1-5 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the game was 466 … Saturday night’s other NOJHL games saw the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners beat the Trappers 4-1 in North Bay and the Soo Thunderbirds thump the Beavers 9-1 in Blind River … The next action for the Eskimos will come on Saturday, Jan. 4, when they host the Thunderbirds at the Jus Jordan Arena, at 7:30 p.m.