IROQUOIS FALLS - Third place will be on the line when the Abitibi Eskimos host the Espanola Rivermen at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
Pending the outcome of Espanola’s game against the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake Friday night, the two teams are tied in the NOJHL standings with 46 points.
The Rivermen, however, will have three games in hand on the Eskimos when the puck drops Saturday night.
“It’s not critical, but it is a big game,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“It’s one of those games where you want to make a statement and we are hoping to get out of our little two-game funk.
“This is a good opportunity to get back on track and play some great hockey.”
The Eskimos are coming off a 6-5 loss to the Trappers in North Bay on Monday night and a 6-4 loss to the Blind River Beavers at home last Saturday.
A mitigating factor in those losses — especially the loss in North Bay — was the short bench the Eskimos were forced to play with.
No. 2 centre Ryan Wildman and winger Shane Hiley are both out with long-term injuries and defenceman Ryan Kerr will miss Saturday night’s game due to a suspension.
Those three players were not in the lineup Monday night against the Trappers and the Eskimos also lost forwards Landon Hiebert and David Becker in the first period and defenceman Kealey Cummings in the second period on checking from behind infractions.
“We were short staffed and we still had an opportunity to win,” Gagne said.
“I guess there must be a memo out for checks from behind. The referees are enforcing that hit, no matter how hard, or if the guy turns around, they are calling it.
“I wish the memo would have gone out at the start of the year. You don’t do this with 25 games left in the season … start changing the game.
“It’s an adjustment.”
The Eskimos short bench was even more of a factor given that they were playing their third game in four nights on Monday against the Trappers.
Becker picked up a suspension to go along with his infraction and he will miss Saturday’s game, while Hiebert is day-to-day with an injury that saw him play just the one shift on Monday night.
The Rivermen have taken three of the five games the two teams have played so far this season, winning 3-1 in Iroquois Falls and 6-5 and 5-4 on home ice, while losing 5-3 in Espanola and 4-3 in Timmins.
“They have three players (Brennen Dubchak 37, 27-36-63, 28; Corbin Bean 36, 25-33-58, 19; and Brandon Janke 37, 24-28-52, 33) who make a difference every game,” Gagne said.
“Those three have made the difference when we have played them, especially in the third period.
“We have been able to shut them down pretty much and then in the third period they came through.”
The Rivermen play a pretty standard, but effective, game.
“They like to dump and chase and use the plexiglass in the defensive zone … just get it out and keep it simple,” Gagne said.
“So we are going to have to be aware of the neutral zone and also make sure we keep the puck in deep and have puck possession in the offensive zone.
“As soon as they have the puck the just use the plexiglass.”
The Eskimos will concentrate on playing “Eskimos hockey” Saturday night, but they will also be paying special attention to Dubchak, Bean and Janke.
“Any time they are on the ice we will have to be aware of it and then just get back to playing our game … be good in the defensive zone, move the puck and play well in the offensive zone, keep it deep, get some shots on net and capitalize,” Gagne said.
“It is a very simple game plan.”
Another key, of course, will be staying out of the penalty box.
The Rivermen have a potent power play and have scored on 20.4% of their opportunities so far this season.
“They like to capitalize on their chances on the power play,” Gagne said.
“They wait for that, so we are going to have to be disciplined towards our program and disciplined towards not taking penalties.”
Heading into the game, the Rivermen are coming off a 7-3 loss to the Bobcats in Elliot Lake.
Prior to that game, however, they had reeled off five-straight victories.
Game time for Saturday’s contest at the Jus Jordan Arena is 7:30 p.m.