IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos will be looking to gift wrap another victory for their fans Saturday night.
In their final game before the Christmas break, the Eskimos will host the Sudbury Nickel Barons at the Jus Jordan Arena in a 7:30 p.m. start.
It will be the sixth meeting between the NOJHL rivals this season, with Sudbury having won three of the first five encounters.
“We started off well against them this season (a 4-2 victory in Sudbury on opening night), but after that we have just seemed to run into them when we were at a low point,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We can’t think that just because they are below us in the standings that we can take it easy.
“They just beat Elliot Lake 3-2 last night in overtime and before that lost 6-5 to North Bay in overtime.”
Giovanni Foschia, with 16 goals, is the Nickel Barons leading scorer and he had all three of Sudbury’s goals against the Bobcats.
In the five games the Nickel Barons have played against the Eskimos this season, he has five goals and two assists.
“He is quite hot right now,” Gagne said.
“He just scored three goals, so we are going to have to pay some extra attention against him.
“We are going to try and make it a little bit more miserable for him to play against us.”
Foschia is the only Nickel Baron with 10, or more, goals this season but Josh Moore (nine goals), August Jarecki (eight goals), Ryan Punkari (eight goals) and Brody Brunet (eight goals) are just short of that milestone.
Brady Clouthier (22 goals) is the Eskimos top sniper and they have four other players — Brenden Locke (12 goals), Erik Robichaud (12 goals), Ryan Tront (11 goals) and Shane Hiley (10 goals) — with at least 10 goals on the season and Ryan Wildman (nine goals) is just off that mark.
Robichaud, by the way, has just been released by the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting, but there is no word yet on whether he will be rejoining the Eskimos.
The Nickel Barons have struggled defensively this season, in part because of injuries, but goalie Michael Muzyka (3.96 goals against average, .902 saves percentage) has been a key reason they have been able to pick up three of a possible four points in their past two games.
The Eskimos, of course, have also enjoy strong goaltending from Brody Wagner (3.42 goals against average, .909 saves percentage) and Sylvain Miron (3.87 goals against average, .898 saves percentage).
The Eskimos defeated the Nickel Barons 7-2 during their last visit to the Jus Jordan Arena on Nov. 30, but Sudbury had a number of players out with injuries and only dressed 13 skaters and two goalies for that game.
The Eskimos will be looking to rebound Saturday night from a 6-0 defeat in Kirkland Lake Sunday night.
Prior to that setback, the Eskimos had won nine of their previous 12 games.
“We are just going to have to make sure that we play our game, taking a lot of shots on net, good defence, move the puck quickly and go work on our forecheck,” Gagne said.
“We need to get the puck to the net, get men going to the net and get some garbage goals.
“We just have to get really gritty here.”
The Eskimos have been working hard in practice all week in an effort to put Sunday’s defeat in their rear view mirror.
“They are on a mission,” Gagne said.
“We have one game before our Christmas break and the kids are looking forward to going home, but they are really focused on Saturday.
“They know how important it is. We have been moving up in the standings and we have been playing extremely well. They don’t want to waste that. They want to make sure they leave the old year and enter the new year on a positive note.”
Heading into the weekend, the Eskimos (36 points) are just two points behind the Espanola Rivermen for third place in the NOJHL standings.
The Nickel Barons (23 points), meanwhile trail sixth-place North Bay by six points, although they are 11 points up on eighth-place Blind River.
In 32 games this season, the Eskimos already have three more victories than they earned in an entire 48-game 2012-13 campaign.