IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos will kick off the 2014 portion of their schedule against the Soo Thunderbirds at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
The contest will be a clash of two of the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League’s hottest franchises.
“We have been playing some great hockey,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We have kept it simple and eliminated our mistakes. The players were really gelling really well.
“There were no passengers. Everybody was pulling in the same direction and we were finding ways to win.”
Still, beating the Thunderbirds for a second time will not be an easy task.
“They are a good hockey club,” Gagne said.
“Let’s face it. They are up there in the standings for a reason.”
Coming off the Christmas break, the visiting Thunderbirds are riding a 12-game winning streak, while the Eskimos have won 10 of their past 14 games.
And the similarities don’t end there.
Both teams offences are powered by play-making centres who are equally adept at putting the puck in the net as they are at feeding their wingers.
Brady Clouthier, of the Eskimos, has 23 goals and 23 assists in 33 games, while Darcy Haines, of the Thunderbirds has 10 goals and 18 assists in 13 games since we was acquired from the Pembroke Lumber Kings, of the CCHL.
“Even the last time we played against them (a 5-2 loss in Sault Ste. Marie), he (Haines) had a lot of ice time and he generates a lot of offence,” Gagne said.
“He is not the fastest player, but he plays the game really well. He reads the play and when he has the puck he makes things happen every time.”
Haines, the NOJHL’s leading scorer during the 2012-13 season while playing with the Sudbury Nickel Barons, had a goal and a pair of assists in that game against the Eskimos.
Both teams have plenty of secondary scoring as well.
The Eskimos’ attack features Ryan Tront (11 goals, 21 assists), Brenden Locke (12 goals, 15 assists), Ryan Wildman (10 goals, 13 assists), Shayne Hiley (10 goals, 11 assists), Andrew Green (seven goals, 12 assists) and Landon Hiebert (four goals, six assists in just eight games).
And the team remains hopeful that Erik Robichaud (12 goals, 12 assists) will return after being released by the Ontario Hockey League’s Sarnia Sting.
The Thunderbirds’ attack, meanwhile, have Gavin Burbach (26 goals, 29 assists), Anthony Miller (21 goals, 29 assists), Tyler Jones (seven goals, 23 assists), Joey Miller (11 goals, 18 assists) and Nicolas Tassone (13 goals, 14 assists).
Both teams also feature mobile defencemen capable of moving the puck quickly out of their own zone.
“We are going to have to try to make it miserable for them when they are on the ice,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have to put pressure on them right away, so they don’t have time to read and react to make a good play.”
Both teams feature strong goaltending.
Joel Horodziejczyk, of the Thunderbirds, leads most NOJHL goaltending categories and has recorded two shutouts, while compiling a 1.76 goals against average and .932 saves percentage.
His backup, Brian Kment (2.03 goals against average, .904 saves percentage), is no slouch either.
“They have good goaltending, but also you have to compliment their defence,” Gagne said.
“They have mature players back there who move the puck well and take their man. They are on their game all the time, finishing their checks, not giving us time and space.
“When we do get the opportunities we have to capitalize on them.”
The Eskimos counter with the duo of Brody Wagner (3.48 goals against average, .906 saves percentage) and Sylvain Miron (3.79 goals against average, .899 saves percentage).
It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the Eskimos and the Thunderbirds play a similar style of hockey.
“They like to play in the offensive zone and their forechecking is really involved,” Gagne said.
“In the defensive zone they have all their players back, committed to playing defence, and they explode into the offensive zone. Their defence jumps in, so yeah it’s similar.
“They have quite a few good hockey players and we have quite a few good hockey players and the goaltending is solid and our goaltending is solid, so yeah it’s pretty compatible.”
The last time the Thunderbirds visited the Jus Jordan Arena, the Eskimos stole a 3-2 overtime victory from the league leaders.
“We brought our A game and that is what we have to do,” Gagne said.
“In this league, if you don’t bring your A game and the other team does, the odds are you aren’t going to win.
“We had solid goaltending. Our defence has been playing really well and moving the puck well. Our forwards were helping out in the defensive zone and we applied pressure in the offensive zone. Everything was going really well.”
That 3-2 overtime win over the Thunderbirds kicked off the Eskimos current streak of 10 wins in 14 games.
The Eskimos returned to practice Thursday night and will have just one lineup change heading into Saturday night’s clash with the Thunderbirds.
Forward Ben Miller (five goals, 10 assists in 28 games) has opted to leave the team to concentrate on his studies at Northern College.
“The next couple of days we will be practising and trying to get our timing back,” Gagne said.
“We need to get the mental part of the game for a full commitment. These guys have been great all year, so hopefully we will continue on.”
The Eskimos are not about to sit back and rest on their laurels.
“We are not going to be looking back and saying ‘oh, we did well,’” Gagne said.
“Right now we have to look forward to our next game. The players are eager to come back and I am excited about it, the players are excited, too.”
The Eskimos come out of the break trailing the third-place Espanola Rivermen by just two points in the NOJHL standings.
“We have been playing some excellent hockey, but we have to bring our A game and play at 100%,” Gagne said.
“We can’ look back and say we have done really well, awesome. We can’t focus on what we have done in the past. We have got to continue on, improving and progressing.
“The players are motivated and they know that if they bring their A game they are going to win.”
Heading into Saturday night’s game against the Thunderbirds, the Eskimos are healthy and have no suspension concerns.
Game time at the Jus Jordan Arena is 7:30 p.m.