IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos will be looking to end a three-game winless streak when they tangle with the Elliot Lake Bobcats Saturday night.
After opening the NOJHL?regular season in Sudbury with a 3-2 victory over the Nickel Barons back on Sept. 4, the Eskimos have dropped three-straight games — all on home ice.
The last of those three losses, a double-overtime setback against the league-leading Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, at least produced a single point.
When the Elliot Lake Bobcats skate out onto the ice at the Jus Jordan Arena on Saturday, however, the Eskimos will be looking to reward their loyal fans with two points.
Getting that elusive second victory will not come easy though, as the visiting Bobcats (1-0-0-1) are off to a .500 start this season.
“We have got a whole new team this year, pretty much,” said Bobcats coach and general manager Ryan Leonard.
“We released a lot of guys who had some attitudes last year and we started out pretty much from scratch again. Last year we were an expansion team and we said we needed to revisit the attitude of the team from last year and we went and found a lot of older players.
“We were heavily recruiting over the summer time, right across Canada and into the United States, and I think that has helped. At this time last year we had six players who had already gone home and so far this year everybody is happy and everybody is here. We are playing well and we have a full 25-man roster.
“The fans have supported us. Our community has been going through a rough time, so it has been hard to recruit kids the last little while, because of the mall collapse here. There has not been a lot of stuff going on here, but the community is starting to heal and it has been a pretty good first couple of weeks for us.
“Right now, we should probably be 3-0-0-0, but we have blown two games where we were winning in the last couple of minutes and ended up losing in overtime, or late in the third period.”
A big reason for that success has been Elliot Lake’s performance on special teams.
The Bobcats power play has been operating at a 21.4% efficiency rate, compared to their opponents 16.7% rate.
Elliot Lake has also excelled when they have been shorthanded, killing off 83.3% of the penalties they have taken, compared to a rate of 78.6% for their opponents.
“It is something we have stressed, but at the same time with all of the experience we have … most of the guys we have brought in have all played junior hockey at some point somewhere … so it is a combination of experience and working hard at the start,” Leonard said.
“Playing in that exhibition tournament that we had there (the Cottage Cup), gave us some extra games to practise on some things going into the regular season, so that kind of helped us out a lot.”
The Eskimos, by contrast, have not enjoyed as much success on special teams.
The Abitibi power play has been operating at an efficiency rate of 12.9%, compared to their opponents rate of 25.7%.
The news isn’t any better when it comes to penalty killing for the Eskimos.
They have held opponents off the scoreboard on just 74.3% of their chances, compared to their opponents success rate of 87.1%.
“We have got the three practices, so we are going to work on the power play,” Paul Gagne said, following Sunday night’s double-overtime loss to the Gold Miners.
“We will also be working on the penalty kill and defensive-zone coverage. You just have to recap everything during the week and prepare for Saturday.”
The Bobcats have six players — Andrew Palushaj (3, 5-1-6, 0), Brett Wagner (3, 1-5-6, 0), Aaron Carmichael (3, 0-5-5, 2), Max Glashauser (3, 0-4-4, 2), Dustin Cordeiro (3, 4-0-4, 2) and Kyle Rowe (3, 1-2-3, 4) — who are averaging at least a point a game so far this season.
“Our back end has an average size of 6-1 and 190 lbs., but we have a real fast, quick forward corps,” Leonard said.
“Probably eight of our 14 forwards are about 5-9, or 5-10, but they are fast and quick, whereas last year we were big all the way around, with some guys who weren’t so mobile.
“So, this year we have a quick, fast, skilled, high-energy hockey club.”
Zach Innes (3, 1-2-3, 0) and Brennan Roy (4, 0-3-3, 4) are the Eskimos’ top point producers, while rookie centre Brady Clouthier (4, 2-0-2, 4) is the only Abitibi sniper with more than one goal.
In fact, the offensively challenged Eskimos are averaging less than two goals a game, compared to the Bobcats’ mark of more than four-and-a-half goals.
Eskimos goalie Sylvain Miron has played every second of the team’s games so far this season, posting a more than respectable 2.92 goals against average and a .924 saves percentage.
Abitibi fans should be familiar with both of the Bobcats puck stoppers.
Etienne Roy (3.92 goals against average, .895 saves percentage), who has played every minute for Elliot Lake so far this season, was with the Eskimos for part of the 2012-13 season.
In 10 games with Abitibi, he posted a 4.89 goals against average and a .880 saves percentage).
The other goalie on the Bobcats roster, Shaun Gerbinski, was in training camp with the Eskimos prior to the start of this season and played in the exhibition game in Kirkland Lake, a 3-2 loss to the Gold Miners.
“Gerbinski was in training camp with the Eskimos and he ended up being the goalie that took Kirkland Lake to a 3-2 (double) overtime loss in an exhibition game and then they released him the following day,” Leonard said.
“He went back home to Manitoba and we had another 20-year-old goalie who got injured, so we went after him and he came up here right away.
“He hasn’t had a chance to play yet, but he might get that chance on Saturday night, depending on how things go on Friday night.”
The Bobcats are scheduled to play the undefeated Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake on Friday night.
“The first one is the toughest,” Leonard said.
“You got bus legs from sitting on the bus all day and then you get set up in a hotel and how the first one goes is how your weekend usually goes. If you start off pretty lousy on Friday its pretty hard to get back up Saturday. But that is just something you have to instil in the guys, that every day is a new day.
“It’s tough on a road trip like that, when you are up north and you are not used to the area. It’s a different culture for a lot of the kids, for example we have only got two kids from Northern Ontario on our whole roster, out of 25 guys. It’s a whole new atmosphere for them.”
Game time for Saturday’s contest at the Jus Jordan Arena is 7:30 p.m.