IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos eliminated the Elliot Lake Bobcats Wednesday night — not just from the NOJHL playoffs but also from existence.
The Bobcats are extinct, long live the Crunch.
Ryan Kerr’s first goal of the playoffs, 5:44 into the third period, snapped a 2-2 tie and lifted the Eskimos to victory in Game 7 of their best-of-seven quarter-final series at the Jus Jordan Arena.
“I just wanted to get the puck on the net and hope something goes in,” he said.
“In the third period we all knew we had to get pucks on the net and drive the net, crash the net, forecheck hard and make them choke.”
After losing the lead and then falling behind, the Bobcats put up a furious fight in the final five minutes of the hockey game, looking to find the equalizer.
“(Defending against the Bobcats’ pressure) was difficult and I just had one thing on my mind, just to get the puck out,” Kerr said.
You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the Eskimos players and their fans when the final buzzer sounded.
“It felt good,” Kerr said.
“It was a long series. We worked hard and it just felt good to win that one.”
The Eskimos won’t have too long to savour Wednesday night’s victory, as they will be heading to Sault Ste. Marie to play the first two games of their best-of-seven semi-final series on Saturday and Sunday.
After such a long and intense series against the Bobcats, it remains to be seen just how much the Eskimos will have left in the tank for the Thunderbirds.
“We will put up a good fight, I think,” Kerr said.
The Eskimos had trailed 2-1 heading into the final period on Wednesday, but Brady Clouthier’s goal 1:20 into the frame got the home side back on even terms and brought the crowd of 826 mostly Eskimos fans to their feet.
The Bobcats drew first blood, when Brad Holman beat Eskimos goalie Brody Wagner 5:40 into the opening period.
The Eskimos got that one back midway through the period, when Brennan Roy scored an unassisted power-play goal.
Eskimos fans had barely settled back into their seats from celebrating that marker, however, when Mike Gambino scored 15 seconds later to restore Elliot Lake’s one-goal advantage.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased with the way his team played the third period.
“In the second period, we were dumping it in, but it was mostly give aways,” he said.
“They were jumping on the pucks first, so they had lots of puck possession. We would get it out, no problem, but our forecheck was delayed because of it.
“In the third period, we adjusted. It was more of a strategic dump, meaning the defence dumped it in earlier, so then the forwards could have a little speed and get to the puck.
“It made a difference. We put a little bit of pressure on them and then all of a sudden we were getting the opportunities, then we moved it back to the point, the defence would shoot it on net.
“It gave us a little bit of momentum. Just to show you, the puck went to Kerr twice on that same goal. The first time, he didn’t get it through, but it came back to him and he got it through the second time and it hit the (goalie’s) pad and went up top shelf.”
Another reason for the Eskimos victory Wednesday night was their improved defensive zone coverage late in the hockey game.
“I think it comes from experience and a little less panic in the last minute,” Gagne said.
“Our objective was just to get it out. When it doubt, dump it out. That’s what we did. The forwards knew that the puck was getting out and we shut them down. We tried to close off the neutral zone. We would just dump it in and close the neutral zone and whenever they dumped it in we got puck possession and just got it out.”
Gagne was happy that the game proved so entertaining for the Eskimos largest crowd of the season.
“It was exciting hockey,” he said.
“There was pressure on the kids, but it was good entertainment. I don’t think most of these kids have played in front of that many people this year and some of us will never play in front of that many fans, so it was nice to have that support and we didn’t disappoint our fans.
“They saw a great hockey game, especially the first and third periods. The second period was good, but the other two periods were great.”
Wagner made 38 saves while earning the win for the Eskimos and Bobcats goalie Alex Bitsakis turned aside 43 Eskimos shots in suffering the loss.
You could hear a pin drop outside the Bobcats dressing room following the game, as the players quietly contemplated what they had come of so close to accomplishing.
“You know what, the amount of time we spent on that bus in the last eight days, or 10 days, it is amazing how these guys were still battling and still going right to the end,” said Bobcats coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard.
“We had a bad minute-and-a-half, or two minute break there in the third period and a couple of veteran missed assignments and it cost us the hockey game, but overall you have got to be happy with the way these guys battled … both teams.
“We aren’t getting a lot of recognition, but this is going to be the series of the league this year. I don’t know if you will see another series go seven games like this. It was great for the fans, it was great for the players, it was great for hockey in general and I am happy just to have been part of it.”
With their playoff run having come to an end, the Bobcats will move to Cochrane where the franchise will operate as the Crunch in 2014-15 and beyond.
“I am looking forward to being able to bring this momentum into Cochrane,” Leonard said.
“We are going to start building and getting things on the ground, so that we can have a franchise the North can be proud of.
“I am looking forward to the new challenge, but at the same time we had seven great years in Elliot Lake. We did the best we could there and we hold our heads up high. There are some wonderful people in the community, some wonderful families who billeted players.”
The Crunch office in the Tim Horton Event Centre will open for business on Monday.