TIMMINS – The Abitibi Eskimos will welcome the first-place Soo Thunderbirds to the Archie Dillon Sportsplex Friday night.
That Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League contest had originally been scheduled for Jan. 18, but it was cancelled because of bad weather and road closures.
Saturday night, the Eskimos will host the third-place Sudbury Nickel Barons at the Jus Jordan Arena.
After dropping a 4-1 decision to the second-place Trappers in North Bay on Sunday night, these two games will conclude a three-game span in which the Eskimos will have played the top three teams in the league.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne likes his team’s chances on the weekend and the way his team has been playing.
“I like the way we played last weekend, even in North Bay, even though we lost, I thought we did well there,” he said.
“I was really happy with the way we played. We showed a lot of commitment, determination and we had some great chances.
“I was really happy the way we competed and I am really hoping to see that same level of commitment this weekend.
“It will be a good test on Friday.”
The Eskimos edged the Thunderbirds 5-4 in overtime in their first encounter of the season, but have dropped four straight games to the Soo since that contest — 4-0 and 10-6 on home ice and 7-3 and 3-1 in Sault Ste. Marie.
“They have had pretty much everybody in the league’s number, being in first place,” Gagne said.
“We played really well last weekend and hopefully we can do that against the Soo and Sudbury this weekend.
“We have to stay out of the penalty box, that’s No. 1, and No. 2 is being disciplined regarding our program and being patient … not giving them all these chances and opportunities.
“If we can eliminate our mistakes, that will be good.”
The game plan is simple.
“By putting pressure on them, by getting a lot of shots on net and playing in the offensive zone, it generates momentum and leads to frustration on the opposition, which equals power-play opportunities,” Gagne said.
“If we can do that, be patient and aggressive and continue on doing the little things we are doing then things will work out our way. They have to.”
The Eskimos have had a little more luck against the Nickel Barons this season, winning two of the six games they have played.
While the Thunderbirds and Nickel Barons are both in the top third of standings, their style of play is very different.
“The Soo has great goaltending, great defence, they have four, or five individual players who make a difference on the team,” Gagne said.
“And then you look at Sudbury and Sudbury has that one line (Sebastien Leroux, Darcy Haines and Martin Jolicoeur) and if we can dominate against the one line, then the odds of winning are higher for us, for sure.”
Regardless of which team Abitibi is playing, however, the key is to play “Eskimos hockey.”
“We cleaned shop last weekend, meaning we took care of our program,” Gagne said.
“We committed to our program. We eliminated our mistakes and everybody was on the same page, working hard.
“It leads to being so much better confidence wise and you win more hockey games.”
After making a number of changes earlier in the season the Eskimos roster of 20 skaters and two goalies has been relatively stable for the past couple of weeks.
“More repetition is good and they have been finding their roles, but to me it’s all psychological,” Gagne said.
“If they believe in what we are doing and not try to do their own little program good things will happen.
“A lot of times hockey players don’t go well and they try to help out and do too much and it doesn’t work.
“The word patient comes into it. Stay within our program, be patient and with repetition and playing together hopefully things will come out on the positive side.”
The Eskimos are healthy heading into this weekend’s game, with no suspensions and no injuries or illnesses.
Game time for both Friday’s game at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex and Saturday’s game at the Jus Jordan Arena is 7:30 p.m.