IROQUOIS FALLS – The Abitibi Eskimos buckled down after surrendering a pair of first-period goals to score three-unanswered markers in a 4-2 victory over the Blind River Beavers on Saturday night.
The hosts trailed 2-1 following the first frame, but went on to play shutdown defence.
Abitibi goalie J.P. Fecteau stopped all 18 shots he faced in the final 40 minutes and had 23 saves overall.
“We were more intense as the game went on,” said Joel Roy, the game’s first star.
“We got together between periods and talked it over. We came out strong in the third period. We knew we had to win that period for the W.”
Richard Therrien, Josh Clancy, Gary Rai and Maxime St. Pierre were the goal scorers for the Eskis, who won their third-consecutive contest and improved to 21-18-1.
Blind River (20-17-4) had its goals scored by Lorne Miller and Brett Campbell.
After Therrien got the scoring underway 16:14 into the match, the Beavers quickly struck for back-to-back markers. Miller potted a rebound at the 16:37 mark and 48 seconds later Blind River again drove to the net with Campbell providing the finishing touch.
The inability to clear Beavers from the goalmouth was just one of several issues for the Eskis early on, said head coach Paul Gagne.
“I wasn’t happy with our defensive zone coverage down low,” he said. “We weren’t dumping it in, we were losing the puck at the blue-line … it wasn’t that crisp, clean game for us. That was the first period.
“It was progressively getting better from the first, second and third period.”
The improvements didn’t result in the tying goal until there were six minutes remaining in the second period. That’s when Clancy evened things up on a shot that Beaver Josh McInnes just couldn’t squeeze. The goalie slowed the puck down, but still had it bounce, then slide past the goal-line.
The game-winner was tallied by Rai, who was the recipient of a pass on a 2-on-1 rush. It was scored at 4:28 in the third period.
Though the Eskis worked the 2-on-1 to a tee, Gagne praised his team, especially his third and fourth lines, for weathering a Blind River storm. The Beavers nearly had a go-ahead goal of their own prior to Rai’s marker.
We were “in the defensive zone for a good minute,” Gagne said. “But who was tired? Not us because we were playing with great position. We didn’t move more than a metre or two. With our position we kept them to the outside, they tried to get into the box, there was a turnover, we go all the way down … Bang, Gary scores a goal. That’s from being patient.”
The Beavers pulled McInnes with less than two minutes remaining, but it was St. Pierre scoring to clinch the victory for Abitibi. Much like a Gold Glove pitcher fielding a comebacker, St. Pierre created a turnover when he snagged a hard pass out of the air while in Blind River territory. He quickly dropped the puck and buried it into the empty net.
Abitibi has now won its last five games against Western Division teams.
“It feels good because we know we’re much better than the beginning of the year,” said Roy, who recorded two assists on Saturday. “We know we have a shot at beating every team in this league.”
Roy was recently bumped up to the team’s second line when St. Pierre sat out with an injury. Though it’s been a departure from what the fourth-year vet is used to, he has done quite well. He has nine points in the last four games for a total of 39 points on 16 goals and 23 assists. That point total is Roy’s personal best and has him in third in team scoring.
“We had so many good players (last year) like Marc-Alain Begin and (Felix) Boutin,” Roy said. “I was always playing defensively with Matt St. Jacques. This year it’s pretty much the same thing but I put more pressure on myself. I want to perform well.
“(Scoring) is always fun. It’s a good feeling. It’s what every player wants, to score as much as we want.”
With the luxury of 14 forwards on the roster, Gagne said that the team stands to gain a lot with players pushing hard to crack the lineup.
“We might have a couple of extra forwards who might be healthy for next Saturday, so the intensity is going to be good in practice. I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
“I think (competition) is healthy. There’s no complacency.”
By scoring the winning goal, Rai maintained a scoring average of better than a point per game. In 14 contests with the Eskis, the Vancouver native has seven goals and eight assists for 15 points.
“I just want to keep contributing and for the team to win,” he said. “Hopefully we can make a good playoff push and have fun. As long as we win, that’s all that matters. Points will come as long as the team success is there.”
Since joining the team a month and a half ago, Rai said he has fit in well. He was accustomed to playing a similar style in the British Columbia Hockey League and that has helped his transition.
“I like the European system,” he said. “When I played back home, coaches said to play the defensive system right and the offence will come. I played in the BCHL and I had good success as a rookie there. I didn’t get much ice time as a rookie, but when I got the chance to play I was able to keep up and do well.
“Just to get the trust from the players, it’s something you want as a player, also from coaches, management … It’s a good feeling. It makes everything a lot easier.”