TIMMINS - The Abitibi Eskimos are hoping the patience and attention to detail they displayed in upsetting the NOJHL’s top team last Saturday will translate into two more wins this weekend.
They will have a golden opportunity to gain ground on the two teams immediately ahead of them in the standings when they host the Espanola Rivermen Friday night at the McIntyre Arena and the Elliot Lake Bobcats Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
The Eskimos trail the third-place Rivermen by 10 points, but have three games in hand on Espanola.
“The parity is really good in the league this season,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“With those games in hand, anything can happen.
“That’s why they call it a four-point game, because you can really gain some ground.”
Elliot Lake, meanwhile, sits in fourth place — five points up on the Eskimos — and the two teams have both played 20 games.
“We just have to take advantage of our situation here,” Gagne said.
“We have got games in hand, so let’s play them like they are four-point games.
“Desperation is a key word here.”
Against the Soo Thunderbirds last Saturday, the Eskimos kept their game simple and played patient hockey, waiting for their opportunities and then capitalizing on them.
“The way the players committed was key,” Gagne said.
“It was one of those games where 100% of our players played really well.
“Everybody had their assignments and there were hardly any mistakes made and that is what you want to see.
“We had good goaltending, our defence was great and we made things happen.
“We brought our A game and it was almost an A+ game.
“We have to continue now and the kids know it’s a good feeling.”
Even without Erik Robichaud (13, 12-12-24, 6) in the line-up, the two remaining members of the Eskimos No. 1 line, Brady Clouthier (20, 14-16-30, 24) and Ryan Tront (20, 5-12-17, 16) continued to excel with Andrew Green joining the duo.
“They have been on a roll,” Gagne said.
“They have really been playing well and they have got motivation. They have been a spark plug on our team and the other players are feeding off of them, too.”
Tront scored twice against the Soo, with Clouthier netting the third goal — the overtime winner.
“Clouthier has maintained that level of play all year,” Gagne said.
“He is a great, great kid, who works hard, not just offensively. He works hard, he commits defensively, finishes his checks. He is really a little pesky Eskimo on the ice.
“And Tront has picked up his game in the last four, or five games, since he has been put on that line. It has put some life in his game and it’s nice for them to have been able to contribute the way they have.”
Robichaud was held off the scoreboard in his first game with the Sting, but scored his first OHL goal in Sarnia’s 4-3 loss in Mississauga Sunday night.
Another player who has flourished for the Eskimos with the losses of Robichaud to the OHL and No. 2 centre Ryan Wildman (19, 8-8-16, 10) to injury is 16-year-old Brenden Locke (20, 3-11-14, 4).
“With Robichaud and Wildman being away, that moved him to the second line and he got more ice time,” Gagne said.
“And with more ice time, he is playing with a little bit more confidence. He was more responsible in the defensive zone and we know his natural position is at centre. He loves to go with the puck and make some plays, but he knows he has to play good defensively, also.”
Ben Miller (15, 2-5-7, 14) is another player who stepped up his game on Saturday.
“He is a good third-line centre, who has to play well defensively and if he scores the odd goal once in a while then that will help out the club,” Gagne said.
“He is learning to adapt to that role. We are really happy with the way he played (on Saturday).”
Solid goaltending is another key for the Eskimos to be able to win games employing the patient, defence-first style they are currently using.
And Brody Wagner (303:07, 0, 3.17, .916), who has started five-straight games for the Eskimos, has provided just that since his arrival.
“The way he has been playing, it just seems like the game has slowed down for him,” Gagne said.
“He is very confident, he is challenging the players and the pucks are hitting him.
“It doesn’t seem like he is making spectacular saves because he is always in good position and he is playing some great hockey.
“We had been in a bit of a funk before he arrived and he came in and took some of the pressure of the team.”
The goaltending situation in Espanola, meanwhile, seems to be evolving, with Griffin Strain departing and Joakim Jutras (307:51, 0, 2.73, .932) and Marc Terriault (310:58, 0, 2.70, .919) coming in to join Alex Chandler (177:58, 1, 2.70, .887).
“I don’t think we have played against them,” Gagne said.
“Since the last time we have played them they have had four, or five goalies in camp in the last three weeks.
“It seems to be a bit of an issue for them and I am hoping it stays that way when we play them on Friday.”
Espanola has been rolling on offence and their 95 goals scored lead the NOJHL.
“We are going to have to be aware of where three of the Rivermen — Brandon Janke (23, 16-21-37, 20), Corbin Bean (22, 16-21-37, 13) and Brennen Dubchak (23, 19-16-35, 13) — are on the ice at all times,” Gagne said.
“Those three players have been doing most of the damage on offence for them, so we are going to make sure we find a way to shut them down.”
The Eskimos have enjoyed success against the Bobcats this season and even in the games they have lost, they have played well.
“Even the last game we played them, I felt that we could have won, but we ran out of goals,” Gagne said.
Just like Friday night against the Rivermen, the Eskimos will have to shut down the Bobcats top snipers Saturday night.
Brett Wagner (20, 18-9-27, 0) had three goals against the Eskimos on his last visit to the Jus Jordan Arena.
Dustin Cordeiro (20, 8-14-22, 18) and Andrew Palushaj (18, 12-6-18, 4) are also enjoying fine offensive seasons, while Aviv Milner (19, 7-4-11, 6) seems to score against the Eskimos every time he plays them.
“Sometimes players have a comfort zone when they play certain teams and he fits into that category, when he plays us,” Gagne said.
“But if we can shut them down and shut down a couple of other players, it may not work out so well for them.”
Two of the Bobcats three goaltenders — Etienne Roy (693:26, 1, 3.11, 911) and Shaun Gerbinski (91:22, 0, 3.28, .889) — are former Eskimos, while Alex Bitsakis (433:57, 0, 3.04, .912) is a newcomer to the league.
Game time for both Friday’s game and Saturday’s game is 7:30 p.m.