IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos will be looking to carry over the regular-season success they enjoyed against the Elliot Lake Bobcats into Game 1 of their best-of-seven NOJHL playoff series Friday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
The Eskimos won six of the eight games the two teams played during the 2013-14 campaign, including all four played at the Jus Jordan Arena.
Despite that fact, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne is not about to take the Bobcats lightly — especially given that there was only eight goals difference between the two teams during those eight regular-season games.
“They are a team that wants to play in the offensive zone,” he said.
“They forecheck and they shoot from everywhere, we are even talking neutral zone. Every time they have an opportunity, it is shots on net, shots on net.
“They have got a good offence and we know that. That (forechecking and getting shots on net) is how you create good offence, so we need to be strong in the defensive zone, we need to do our assignments and play our program in our defensive zone and then counter attack.”
One of the keys for continued success for the Eskimos will be playing as much of the game as possible in the Elliot Lake end of the rink.
“We will have to make sure they have to go into areas where they are not comfortable, which is their defensive zone,” Gagne said.
“We have to really take advantage of our forechecking and our shots on net. We have to play in our offensive zone more than they play in theirs.”
The Eskimos ended the season with six players — forwards Brady Clouthier, Shane Hiley, Landon Hiebert and David Becker, as well as defencemen Steven Pettite and Jamey Lauzon — out with injuries.
The good news is that four of those players — Hiebert, Becker, Pettite and Lauzon — are likely to be in the lineup for Game 1 Friday night.
“I had a smile on my face Tuesday night and the reason is we had the four of them on the ice and the four of them are committed to playing on Friday,” Gagne said.
The bad news?
“Hiley has been suspended (by the Eskimos) indefinitely and he is no longer with the organization and Mr. Clouthier has been suspended indefinitely,” Gagne said.
“It is unfortunate, but they are internal issues that we have and they won’t be resolved. One (Hiley) has been resolved. It is definite. The other one hasn’t been resolved and it is indefinite.”
Gagne would not elaborate on whether the suspensions are the result of a violation of a team rule, or give any other details about the incidents that led to the action.
Clouthier, named the left winger on the NOJHL’s first all-star team, was the Eskimos leading scorer (50, 30-36-66, 58) during the regular season.
Hiley, when healthy, also enjoyed a solid offensive season, scoring 12 goals and adding 13 assists in 34 games.
Even without Clouthier and Hiley, the Eskimos should have no shortage of offence against the Bobcats.
Centres Erik Robichaud (36, 32-29-61, 34) and Brenden Locke (56, 27-28-55, 10) are both coming off solid offensive seasons.
And forwards Ryan Tront (56, 16-37-53, 46), Ryan Wildman (41, 15-20-35, 16) and Hiebert (24, 6-11-17, 10) also averaged almost a point a game.
Diminutive Andrew Green (49, 12-20-32, 31) and Zach Innes (56, 13-16-29, 20) also finished in double figures for goals.
Innes, it should be noted had the game-winning goals in two of the six victories over the Bobcats during the regular season.
The others came off the sticks of Ben Miller (no longer with the team), Clouthier, Marc Dube and Tront.
The return of the four injured players to the Eskimos lineup for the start of the playoffs should give the team a boost.
If the Eskimos are to be successful in shutting down the Bobcats’s offence one of the keys will be strong play from the team’s checking forwards, players like Jacob Kenney, Becker and Sheehan Moore.
“The affiliate players — forward Kezmin Madden and defencemen Josh Dejulio and Brady Clouthier (same name, but not the suspended forward) — we had come in, helped out,” Gagne said.
“They played their roles and really played well for us, which as great, but now that we have those four guys back in the lineup it just adds more depth to our club.”
All three affiliate players will continue to practise with the Eskimos.
Pettite and Lauzon rejoin a defensive corps that also includes Captain Kevin Walker, Brennan Roy, Kealey Cummings, Ryan Kerr and Bryce Robert.
The Eskimos feature a solid one-two punch in goal, with both Brody Wagner (15-9-0, 3.78, .901, 0) and Sylvain Miron (15-16-0, 3.36, .903, 0) both showing this season that they are capable of stealing games.
Gagne does not expect to tinker with the Eskimos’ game plan too much heading into the playoffs.
“Maybe the intensity,” he said.
“When we play Eskimos hockey, it is with great intensity. Our assignments are done. We play within the program, we are patient, we don’t lose our composure.
“If we do that and keep the momentum, I believe we will be playing winning hockey.
“A lot of sacrifices will be required, things like swallowing your pride, not taking stupid penalties. Sometimes you have to take a check, or a little elbow and take one for the team. The team comes first.
“That is the way we have been playing and I believe the players are going to come through. They worked hard all year.”
Special teams are even more important during the playoffs and the series could be decided by which team is more successful on the power play.
During the regular season, the Eskimos had the better power play operating at a 17.6% efficiency rate compared to the Bobcats 13.8%.
But the Bobcats were more efficient at killing penalties, 81.7%, than the Eskimos 78.3%.
Staying out of the penalty box, of course, is the best way to keep your opponent from scoring power play goals.
The Eskimos (254) allowed opponents 24 few power-play opportunities over the course of the regular-season than the Bobcats (278).
Game 1 on Friday is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.
Game 2 in the series will also be played at the Jus Jordan Arena, on Saturday, starting at 7:30 p.m.
The first game in Elliot Lake will be played on Thursday, March 20.