TIMMINS - The Abitibi Eskimos will be focused on playing Eskimos hockey when they welcome the Sudbury Nickel Barons to the McIntyre Arena Friday night.
“We worked hard the last two practices,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“You always introduce different things for your program.
“It’s to do it when everybody is on the same page, meaning it is progressively being introduced as a whole, as a team.
“The players are really conscious of their assignments right now.
“I feel we are on a high about it and the players are really focused, so as long as we maintain that focus … on our play … of course if we see something during the course of the game that is advantageous for them then we will work on it and make modifications.
“But we really need to implement and play our game at 100%. I know I have said that before, but it’s true. That’s the way it is.”
Thursday night was a tactical practice for the Eskimos, designed to incorporate things that might prove effective against the Nickel Barons Friday night.
The Eskimos opened the 2013-14 regular season with a 3-2 victory over the Nickel Barons in Sudbury back on Sept. 4.
“The first couple of games you play, it’s almost the NHL if you watched the Toronto Montreal game if you look at all the shots that were taken on net,” Gagne said.
“The first period, they (Toronto) had 18 shots, or something like that.
“At the start of the year the players are not 100% towards the program, so the team we are going to face tomorrow night is not the same team.
“They have had time to gell and put a program together, so, yah, we are going to have our hands full.
“But, then again, I think we are a better club now than we were in the first game of the season, so I am very confident that our players are really playing well and I am just hoping we can maintain that level.
“We are learning, we are breathing hockey right now and the players are really adapting and having fun, so hopefully we can continue that tomorrow night.”
The Nickel Barons are off to a slow start (2-8-0-0) in large part because of a raft of injuries.
“We are unfortunately battling the injury plague currently,” said Nickel Barons coach Trevor Blanchard.
“We have not been able to play with a full roster yet to start the year and we are 10 games in.
“The thing you don’t hope for at the start of the year has been happening.
“We are, most likely, going to have four guys out of the lineup with different types of injuries, so we are a depleted club walking into Timmins tomorrow, but we have been working hard and there’s not much we can do other than put our best effort forth tomorrow night.”
And most of the bodies expected to be out of the Nickel Barons’ lineup are key contributors, not just bench players.
The injured players include Josh Moore (7, 4-0-4, 6), Martin Jolicouer (3, 0-1-1, 4), Kurtis Clouthier (6, 2-0-2, 0) and Mathieu Lecavalier (10, 0-0-0, 15).
Jolicouer, in particular, was expected to be one of the keys on offence for a Sudbury team that lost most of its key offensive weapons from the 2012-13 season.
“When you get injuries you hope they don’t happen to your top guys, but that is what has been happening,” Blanchard said.
“Our go-to-type players are getting injured, but the way we look at it it is better to get injured at the start of the year than towards the end, so we are just trying to battle and get on the winning track without them.”
The standings do not reflect how well the Nickel Barons have played while waiting for their injured players to return.
“You know what, we have been working hard considering the lineup changes every night,” Blanchard said.
“We have been juggling lines and using different defence pairs do to the injuries that have been piling up, so I have to give the guys who have been playing the first 10 games of the season credit.
“They have been working hard and we have been in most hockey games.
“The ones that have turned into a little bit more of a lopsided affair have happened in the third period, where we have kind of run out of gas.
“So, hopefully the injury plague is done and we will be able to get healthy … the sooner the better.”
The Eskimos are not about to take the Nickel Barons lightly heading into Friday’s game.
“Their games, some of them were pretty close,” Gagne said.
“It’s just the way the ball rolls. Sometimes in the course of a season you are going to have a little slide like that, preferably not at the end of the season, but if it’s at the start of the season it’s forgiven. Every team has to gell sooner, or later, and understand their program.
The Nickel Barons have been getting key contributions from a number of players so far this season.
“The two guys who really jump out at me are Ryan Punkari (10, 4-6-10, 2), who is leading our team in points,” Blanchard said.
“He is a 96, and one of his linemates, Brody Brunet (10, 2-5-7, 6), he is a ’97 who just turned 16 actually yesterday.
“They have been playing really great for us and they have been taking extra ice time and learning with it, proving to me and the rest of the coaching staff they are more than capable of playing those big minutes and they are factoring on the scoresheet, which definitely helps our club.”
The Eskimos have been playing an up tempo and putting a lot of pressure on the other team’s defence.
“Our style right now is that we are forechecking and playing good defence, obviously, but also doing some great forechecking and if you are able to do that we can make them make mistakes,” Gagne said.
“And when mistakes are made we are rewarded with offence.”
The game plan for the Nickel Barons to slow down the Eskimos is simple.
“I think the message with our club has been the same since the start of the year,” Blanchard said.
“Since we lost a couple of our potent offensive players we have been trying to keep it to a simple system where we pay a little bit more attention to the defensive side of things.
“When you look at our goals against, it doesn’t really seem that way, but we are slowly implementing those type of systems and it takes a little bit of work with some of our guys who haven’t played at this level yet to understand that they need to be consistent for the whole game.
“It will be a simple system, a defensively minded system, that Timmins fans see, with us being patient and hopefully creating turnovers, being in the right spot and hopefully capitalizing on a couple.”
Gagne is not anticipating any chances to the lineup for Friday night’s game, although forward Ben Miller is day-to-day after tweaking a muscle in practice this week.
“He is questionable for tomorrow,” Gagne said.
“It’s up in the air right now.”
Sylvain Miron will likely be back in goal for the Eskimos Friday night, after Simon-Pier Chamberland got the start in Espanola.