TIMMINS - Emotions should be running high this weekend for the Abitibi Eskimos, as they play their final two games of the NOJHL regular season.
Friday night they will host the Sudbury Nickel Barons at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex, their first game in Timmins since it was announced that the franchise will be moving to the City with the Heart of Gold for the 2015-16 season.
“It would be nice to have a good crowd out to support the team,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“It is a good chance for the fans to come out and see what kind of product we have … what Junior ‘A’ hockey is all about. Hopefully, they will come and have a look because it is great hockey.”
A name has yet to be chosen for the Junior ‘A’ hockey franchise that will call the McIntyre Arena home for next season. Nor has the NOJHL announced how many teams it will have or how many games they will play, but the squad has already sold 21 season tickets.
Fans who have yet to sign up for their season tickets can do so by visiting www.eskis.com/page/show/621643-tickets.
Gagne said the team has also been getting a large number of enquiries from potential sponsors.
“It is kind of neat to be in this position,” he said.
On Saturday night, the Eskimos will play their final regular season game at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls, as they host the Mattawa Blackhawks.
“It is going to be an emotional game,” Gagne said.
“I have been involved in emotional games with many of the teams I have played for, whether it has been at the NHL level, or the AHL, or in Europe, even playing for Team Canada at the Spengler Cup.
“When you play your last game, it is very emotional. You reflect on the season. You reflect on the whole situation.
“It will be tough for everybody.”
The outcome of those two games will not influence who the Eskimos meet in the first round of the NOJHL playoffs, as it has been determined for some time now that they will meet their arch rivals from Cochrane — but the Battle of Highway 11 will be turned up a notch.
The Eskimos and the Crunch tied for second place in the East Division standings and home ice is very much up for grabs.
While the Eskimos will host the Nickel Barons and the Blackhawks this weekend, the Crunch host the Blackhawks Friday night and then travel to Powassan for a game with the Voodoos Saturday night.
Cochrane currently holds the tie breaker, with one more victory than the Eskimos, so the Eskimos will either have to gain one more point than the Crunch this weekend or win one more game than the Crunch and gain an equal number of points.
Paul Gagne, the general manager of the Eskimos, feels finishing ahead of the Crunch and possibly getting an extra playoff gate makes sound business sense.
Paul Gagne, the coach of the Abitibi Eskimos, is confident his team can win a series against the Crunch with or without home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
“Business-wise, you want to finish ahead of them, for sure,” he said.
“But we have had success there (at the Tim Horton Event Centre) and we have had success in the last four or five games against them.
“So, it does matter (whether the Eskimos finish second or third), but since we have had success, we will ride on that feeling, the mentality, and go in there and not steal two points, but earn it, take it and then come home.”
The Eskimos and the Crunch split their 10-game series this season, with each team going 5-4-0-1 and winning their times in their opponents building.
Given that the Eskimos have not played a game since Feb. 21, they have had plenty of time to get ready for the Nickel Barons, the Blackhawks and the start of the playoffs.
“Last (Tuesday) night we did a lot of conditioning since we did not skate this past weekend,” Gagne said.
“Tonight there will be a lot of flow, a lot of skating. Then on Thursday night we will be working on a lot of tactical play and with our tactical, we are going to have to make sure to get it past their defencemen and work it into the offensive zone, then get our forecheckers on the puck as fast as we can.
“If we can do that, that is basically our game right now.
“The playoffs are just around the corner and you don’t want to play too much in your defensive zone. You want to play in the neutral and offensive zones.
“The season is geared toward playing in the playoffs, so we are looking at this weekend to improve our play. As a coach, you always want to perfect your game, or your program. That’s what it is all about.
“We tweak different situations. We have different themes on the program. We try to improve it and when it comes to the playoffs, we can adjust on the fly.”
The Eskimos have won three of their past four games, with the final two coming against a pair of pretty good hockey clubs — 7-3 over the Crunch and 4-3 over the Elliot Lake Wildcats.
While finishing second in the East Division makes sound business sense and is not as significant from an on-ice perspective, it would be a reward of sorts for all the hard work the team has put in this season.
“It is always nice,” Gagne said.
“We have been playing some pretty good hockey, so why not continue winning. That is what we are intending to do.”
Heading into the final two games of the regular season, the Eskimos have no injury concerns and will have two healthy-scratches for Friday’s game at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex.
“We are not going to dwell on that,” Gagne said.
“We don’t even want to even think about it. If you are thinking out there, that is when you get injured. We need to just play on instincts and continue to do the things we have been doing … work hard.”
Doing well in the final two games of the regular season would give the Eskimos an opportunity to carry a little extra momentum into the post season.
“I don’t know anybody who laces up their skates and then says ‘OK, we are going out to lose,’” Gagne said.
“Everybody that plays … and I don’t care if you are three or four years old or you are 60 or 70 years old … once you go on the ice, you want to win. It doesn’t matter what level you are playing at, you put your skates on and you go out there to win.
“That is what we want to do, we want to play to win. It is fun to win. That’s the bottom line, so let’s go out and have fun.”