IROQUOIS FALLS – A lot has changed since the Abitibi Eskimos skated off the ice at the Jus Jordan Arena on Nov. 24.
First off, the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League squad has posted three victories in the four games it has played since that night.
That strings includes a 7-0 victory over the Sudbury Nickel Barons in Cochrane, a 4-3 win over the Bobcats in Elliot Lake and an 8-5 win over the Beavers in Blind River.
The only loss was a 3-1 setback in Sault Ste. Marie.
“We played really well,” said Eskimos coach and GM Paul Gagne.
“Losing 3-1 to a team like that isn’t bad and they are an excellent team, you can’t deny that.
“We were really happy with our play. We were competitive, so that was good, and we will be looking to redeem ourselves on Saturday.”
The Thunderbirds will provide the opposition on Saturday night when the Eskimos return to the friendly confines of the Jus Jordan Arena.
The lineup the Eskimos dress for that game will be significantly different than the one that was on the ice for the Nov. 24 victory over Blind River, as well.
Peter Poulin-Roy, tied for second on the team with 22 points, remains with the Ontario Hockey League’s Sudbury Wolves.
“He left today,” Gagne said.
“He practised with us last night (Tuesday) and just got the call because of injury. He will be playing with them this weekend.
“They have got some injuries and suspensions.
“We wish him all the best. That’s what it’s all about, getting them ready to play at the next level and that’s what he is doing right now.”
The Wolves will host Plymouth Friday night and then play in Niagara Falls Saturday night and Mississauga on Sunday.
Poulin-Roy has one goal in the three games he has played with the Wolves so far this season.
The Sudbury native went scoreless in seven games during 2011-12 and five games in 2010-11.
Backup goaltender Etienne Roy has been released and replaced by Jeremy Laux, who has yet to see any action.
Laux, a native of Switzerland, holds triple Swiss, German and U.S. citizenship.
“He has finally gotten his release from the U.S. association, so we are happy to have him around,” Gagne said.
“It will give him a chance to work on his game at this level of hockey and hopefully some day we can put him in.”
Eskimos fans shouldn’t expect to see Laux in action anytime soon, however, as Jackson Winkler will continue to start as long as he plays well.
And with a saves percentage of .925 and a goals against average of 3.17 in the six NOJHL games he has played for the Eskimos, there is no indication that he plans to surrender the net in the near future.
“He has been incredible,” Gagne said. “Such a great goaltender and such a good person.
“So Jeremy is going to be our backup until something happens.
“Our philosophy is when a player plays really well there’s no reason not to play him and he’s on a good run right now and hopefully it will continue.”
The Eskimos will also have two new forwards in the lineup — Nick Fountain, who picked up two goals and two assists during last weekend’s road trip, and former Kirkland Lake Gold Miner Jacob Kenney, who picked up a pair of assists during that span.
“The young Kenney comes from Kirkland Lake and he works hard,” Gagne said.
“He is an energy guy and he gives us a lot of forechecking and makes things happen.
“And Nicky Fountain plays hard every shift.
“He will score you a couple of goals once in a while. He competes.
“Last weekend he played on the first line because Poulin-Roy wasn’t there and he has really come along.”
Heading into Saturday’s game, the Eskimos are relatively healthy and they do not have an suspension concerns.
“We should be healthy by the weekend,” Gagne said, although the team was scheduled to practice Wednesday night and Thursday night.
The Eskimos have lost their past two encounters with the Thunderbirds, 3-1 in Sault Ste. Marie on Saturday night and 4-0 the last time they visited the Jus Jordan Arena.
“They have a great defence,” Gagne said.
“They have defencemen who are really solid players and goaltending is really a plus with them, also.
“They are well protected by the defence. And offensively they have got a lot of speed. They just grab the puck and go.
“So we have to be aware of taking our man at all times, because if you let them free wheel they are going to hurt you.”
That is more of a challenge because the Thunderbirds do not just relly upon one line.
“They have got three lines that are very scary, with a lot of speed and offensive skills,” Gagne said. “It’s difficult to shutdown all three, but that’s what it’s all about.
“We have to be aware of who is on the ice and really work hard defensively.
“And hopefully we can generate some offence by playing great defence.”
One Thunderbird who Eskimos fans have not seen before is Yan Kalashnikov, who has one goal in the two games he has played in the Soo.
Kalashnikov, who hails from Minsk, Belarus, was picked up from the SJHL’s Nipawin Hawks and has plenty of speed.
After hosting the Thunderbirds, the Eskimos will travel to Kirkland Lake on Sunday and then to Sudbury on Wednesday for a game against the Nickel Barons — a squad that will be out to avenge the 7-0 loss they suffered at the hands of Abitibi in Cochrane.
The Eskimos will then return home to the Jus Jordan Arena for their final game before the Christmas break, with the Elliot Lake Bobcats in town.