TIMMINS - The Abitibi Eskimos know better than most NOJHL teams that the Mattawa Blackhawks can’t be taken lightly.
The Blackhawks have managed just nine victories so far this season, but two of those wins — both in Mattawa — have come at the expense of the Eskimos.
And both of those decisions came prior to the Blackhawks’ current hot streak that has seen them win four of their past six games.
In fact, since Dec. 1 the Blackhawks, who sit in fifth place in the East Division standings have a record of 7-4-0-1, while the Eskimos, who hold down third spot on the East Division have a record of 7-9-0-0.
So the Eskimos will not be taking anything for granted when then host the Blackhawks at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex Friday night.
“They have been playing a lot better hockey,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“They have a new coaching staff there and they added a couple of different players, so we are definitely going to have to have the same competitiveness that we have had the last four games here.
“We just need to have everybody on the same page and that is what we have had during those four games.”
Taureen White replaced Aaron Corbiere behind the Blackhawks bench and the team has been playing a lot better hockey of late.
One of the reasons for that improved play has been the contributions of defenceman Nick Grosse (36, 4-25-29, 26) who has picked up nine points in Mattawa’s past five games.
Up front, the Blackhawks don’t have any real superstars but they have a number of forwards capable of putting the puck in the net — including Tyler Brodersen (36, 15-18-33, 18), Andy Williams (35, 15-17-32, 27), Jimmy Philbin (35, 12-17-29, 8), C.J. Nicholson (34, 12-14-26, 42), Tanner Bowditch (27, 9-14-23, 18) and former Cochrane Crunch centre Reed Gregory (38, 10-10-20, 8).
The real strength of the Blackhawks, of course, is their big goaltender, Joe Sheppard (1531:56, 0, 6.07, .873).
The 6-3, 195-pound Texan has played more minutes and faced more shots than any other goalie in the NOJHL this season.
“We are going to want to get a lot of shots on him, but we want to make sure they are quality shots,” Gagne said.
“If you get good quality shots good things are going to happen. The puck is going to go in or you are going to get rebounds in front of the net.
“If you drive to the net something is going to happen … a deflection, a goal, a penalty … but something is going to happen.
“The other thing we are going to have to do is just play our game … eliminate our mistakes and play our game, like we have been.”
Following is a brief recap of the first five meetings this season between the Eskimos and the Blackhawks:
Oct. 3 (Archie Dillon Sportsplex) — Eskimos 5 Blackhawks 3 — Brenden Locke (36, 29-29-58, 19) picked up three goals and an assist to lead Abitibi past Mattawa. Ryan Attwood (35, 12-22-34, 48) added a goal and two assists for the Eskimos. Kyle Baril, not longer with the Blackhawks, had a goal and an assist for the visitors. Former Eskimos Braddock Baalerud got the win in goal for the home side, while Sheppard took the loss.
Oct. 25 (in Mattawa) — Blackhawks 5 Eskimos 4 — Former Blackhawk defenceman Alex Daija had two goals and an assist as Mattawa edged Abitibi on home ice. Defenceman Brennan Roy (42, 20-33-53, 58)scored twice for the Eskimos. Sheppard was in net to record the win for the Blackhawks, while former Eskimo Tyler Lessvhaeve took the loss.
Nov. 1 (Jus Jordan Arena) — Eskimos 7 Blackhawks 0 — Chet Tooker (1396:38, 1, 4.55, .882) made 22 saves to earn the shutout as the Eskimos blanked the Blackhawks. Sheppard took the loss. Locke had two goals and two assists to pace the attack for the home side, while Eskimos leading scorer Brady Clouthier (36, 35-35-70, 53) also had a pair of goals.
Nov. 15 (in Mattawa) — Eskimos 6 Blackhawks 2 — Kyle Levis, the Eskimos 16-year-old rookie, scored twice to power the attack for the visitors. Captains Kevin Walker (36, 6-15-21, 49), rookie defenceman Joshua DeJulio (39, 1-12-13, 17) and Jake Holland (24, 15-32-47, 26) each added a pair of assists. Tooker got the win, while Sheppard took the loss.
Dec. 7 (in Mattawa) — Blackhawks 7 Eskimos 4 — Brodersen scored three goals and added an assist to key the attack for the Blackhawks. Philbin chipped in with two goals and an assist. Sheppard got the win in relief of Josh Horner (654:58, 0, 6.96, .829), while Baalerud and Tooker split the duties for the Eskimos.
The Eskimos will have checking forward Cosimo Amore back in the lineup Friday night against the Blackhawks after he served the second game of a two-game suspension he picked up against Blind River on Jan. 18.
Forward Ryan Tront (upper-body injury) will not be back in the lineup against the Blackhawks, but there is a possibility that Levis (upper-body injury) might be ready to return.
Friday’s game at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex in Timmins is scheduled to start at 730 p.m.