IROQUOIS FALLS - As the Abitibi Eskimos and the Cochrane Crunch prepare for the puck to drop on Round 9 of the Battle of Highway 11 Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena, it is beginning to look more and more like the two squads will meet in the NOJHL playoffs.
Under the NOJHL’s playoff formula for the 2014-15 season, with five teams in the East Division and four teams in the West Division, the first round of the playoffs will pit the fourth-place team in the East Division against its fifth place squad.
Given that the Powassan Voodoos sit in fourth place, 14 points back of the third-place Eskimos it appears the opening series will see the Voodoos take on the fifth-place Mattawa Blackhawks.
The winner of the series between the Voodoos and the Blackhawks would then do battle with the first-place team in the East Division, while the second- and third-place squads would do battle.
There is still a chance, of course that the second-place Crunch could catch the East Division-leading Gold Miners, but they trail Kirkland Lake by 10 points and the Gold Miners have a game in hand.
Therefore, the likely playoff scenario will have the Crunch and the Eskimos meet in a best-of-seven series in the first full round of the playoffs — as they did last year when the Crunch were playing out of Elliot Lake, as the Bobcats.
The Eskimos, local fans will recall, won that series four games to three, before falling to the Soo Thunderbirds in Round 2.
Home ice will likely be a key factor in a playoff series between the Crunch and the Eskimos, although they have both proven that they can win in each others’ rink.
Following is a brief recap of the first eight meetings between the Crunch and the Eskimos this season.
• Game 8 (Jan. 16) — Eskimos 5 Crunch 2 (in Cochrane): Logan Ferrington made 56 saves to help the Eskimos upset the Crunch. Jake Holland scored the game-winning goal. Crunch starting goalie Brett Young was pulled after giving up all five Eskimos goals, with Ben Auger coming on in relief.
• Game 7 (Dec. 19) — Crunch 9 Eskimos 2 (in Cochrane): Cody Gratton scored twice and assisted on two other goals, as the Crunch crushed the Eskimos. Gratton’s linemate, Josh Racek, scored three goals and added an assist. Young made 35 saves to earn the win. Eskimos goalies Ryan Ferguson and Chet Tooker combined to stop 46 shots, despite giving up nine goals.
• Game 6 (Dec. 16) — Crunch 7 Eskimos 5 (in Iroquois Falls): Racek scored three goals, while Dustin Cordeiro had two goals and two assists for the Crunch. Gratton picked up four assists. Tristan Salesse netted a pair of goals for the Eskimos. Young made 45 saves to earn the victory, while Ferguson was tagged with the loss despite stopping 41 shots.
• Game 5 (Nov. 22) — Crunch 4 Eskimos 3 OT (in Iroquois Falls): Gratton’s second goal of the game, in the first overtime period, provided the Crunch with their margin of victory. Gratton’s first goal of the game, a short-handed marker, had sent the game to overtime. Henry Berger also had a pair of goals for the Crunch. Brady Clouthier and Brennan Roy each had a goal and an assist for the Eskimos. Auger made 39 saves to pick up the victory for the Crunch, while Tooker stopped 38 shots in a losing cause for the Eskimos.
• Game 4 (Nov. 21) — Eskimos 7 Crunch 6 OT (Cochrane): Clouthier scored three goals for the Eskimos, but it was Roy who netted the game-winning marker in the first overtime period. Gratton had a goal and three assists for the Crunch, while Racek had a goal and two assists. Tooker made 38 saves for the Eskimos to earn the win, while Troy Paquette stopped 31 shots and was tagged with the loss.
• Game 3 (Oct. 18) — Crunch 10 Eskimos 3 (Iroquois Falls): Cordeiro scored three goals and added an assist as the Crunch crushed the Eskimos for the second-straight night. Jason Berube, Gratton and defenceman Connor Lovie each added a pair of goals for Cochrane. Paquette made 28 saves to pick up the victory for the Crunch. Eskimos goalies Tooker and Braddock Baalerud combined to stop 29 shots, while each giving up five goals.
• Game 2 (Oct. 17) — Crunch 9 Eskimos 3 (Cochrane): Cordeiro and defenceman Joey Mavrin each had four-point nights as the Crunch tripled the Eskimos. Berube picked up three points in the romp. Cameron Etherington had a goal and two assists for the Eskimos. Paquette made 28 stops to record the win for the Crunch, while Tooker made 33 saves and went the distance for the Eskimos to take the loss.
• Game 1 (Sept. 20) — Eskimos 2 Crunch 1 (Iroquois Falls): Baalerud, who had beaten division-leading Kirkland Lake the night before, made 36 saves to lead the Eskimos to a one-goal win over the Crunch. Clouthier and Brenden Locke scored for the Eskimos, while defenceman Dustin Deugau had the lone Cochrane goal. Paquette made 43 saves and took the loss for the Crunch.
Heading into Saturday night’s game, the Eskimos have 12 games remaining (seven at home, five on the road) and the Crunch 14 (six at home, eight on the road), with Cochrane sitting five points ahead of Abitibi in the standings (pending the outcome of Friday night’s game against the Sudbury Nickel Barons at the Tim Horton Event Centre).
Which team has the more difficult schedule heading down the stretch?
The Eskimos remaining games will see them face the East Division-leading Gold Miners twice (one at home, one on the road), the Crunch twice (one at home, one on the road), the West Division-leading Thunderbirds once (at home) and the Elliot Lake Wildcats, second in the West Division, once (at home).
The Crunch, meanwhile, face the Gold Miners twice (both at home), the Eskimos twice (one at home, one on the road), the Thunderbirds twice (one at home, one on the road) and the Wildcats twice (one at home, one on the road).
The Crunch also have one game remaining (on the road) against the winless Beavers, while the Eskimos are done with Blind River for the year — unless their paths cross in the championship series.
Odds against that happening, however, would appear to be pretty staggering.