TIMMINS - The Abitibi Eskimos will be looking to gain ground on the third-place Espanola Rivermen this weekend.
Winners of three of their past four games, the Eskimos will play three games in four nights against two of the NOJHL’s bottom teams.
Friday night the Eskimos will tangle with the sixth-place North Bay Trappers — losers of five straight — at the McIntyre Arena in Timmins.
“We haven’t played them in a while, but the last time we played them it was a positive outcome,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We have been playing some pretty good hockey, but by facing a team we have not faced in a while we are going to have to make sure we are ready for this game.
“It is the kind of game that could go either way. When you play against a team that has been struggling, they tend to really work hard and they want to get better.
“When you play a team like that you have to jump on them right away, like an animal pouncing on its prey when it is bleeding. You need to go after them and finish them off.
“We are going to have to do the same thing. We are going to have to have a good start and go after them really hard.”
That game, a 5-2 victory for the Eskimos back on Nov. 28, saw the visitors get three assists from defenceman Brennan Roy, as well as a goal and an assist from centre Brenden Locke and a pair of assists from winger Ryan Tront.
Five players North Bay dressed for that game are no longer in the Trappers lineup.
Forward Blake Peavey and defenceman Brett Storr were dealt to the Rivermen in exchange for forward Duane Wainman.
Centre Tyler Kennedy was traded to the Mattawa Voyageurs, Dustin Hummel was shipped to the Perth Blue Wings and forward Andrew DeMarco was released.
The key for the Eskimos will be moving the puck out of their end quickly, being aggressive on the forecheck and trying to play as much of the game as possible in the North Bay end.
“We need to attack, attack, attack and put pressure on the puck carrier,” Gagne said.
“We can’t afford to give them any momentum at all.
“A lot of times that’s a big key to hockey, to keep the momentum going.”
For the Eskimos to join the elite teams, like the Soo Thunderbirds and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, at the top of the NOJHL standings, they will have to beat the teams that they should beat.
“Once again, it is a matter of making sure that we bring our A game,” Gagne said.
“I can honest to God say that we didn’t play our A game in the last 10 minutes of Sunday’s 7-6 double overtime win over the Bobcats in Elliot Lake.
“But that is going to be rectified in practice this week for sure. We will make sure we have a pretty good game plan for this weekend.”
The Trappers have had some difficulty putting the puck in the net this season, with only four players on the roster — Ryan Demyan (20 goals), Eric Champaigne (17 goals), Wainman (13 goals) and Kyle Baril (10 goals) — in double figures for goals.
“They are good hockey players,” Gagne said.
“They get a lot of ice time on the power play, killing penalties and even strength, so we are going to have to be aware of when they are on the ice and try to shut them down, finish our checks.”
The Trappers have employed big goaltenders this season to varying degrees of success, with 16 year old Evan Cormier (6-2, 183 lbs.) getting the bulk of the starts.
With Hummel out of the picture, the Trappers have brought in Lucas Paulsen (6-5, 190 lbs.) from the Long Beach Bombers, of the Western States Hockey League, to share the puck-stopping duties.
Even the affiliate players — Randy Beauchamp (6-5, 196 lbs.) and Ben Auger (6-3, 180 lbs.) — the Trappers have employed this season have been big.
“They are humungus goalies,” Gagne said.
“They have good size, absolutely. Even the kids, I watched them practise with the midget team, they are big.
“But what we have to do is try to put the pressure on them and get as many shots as we can. That is going to be one of our focuses, to get a lot of shots on net this weekend.”
On Saturday night the Eskimos will welcome the Blind River Beavers to the Jus Jordan Arena, before travelling to North Bay on Monday for a rematch with the Trappers.
Like the Trappers, the Beavers have had trouble putting the puck in the net so far this season.
Only two Beavers — Tyson MacLeod (13 goals) and Tyler Shanush (10 goals) — are in double figures for goals now that Samuel Wilbur (20 goals) has been traded to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
That is just one of a number of changes the Beavers have made this season, including bringing in Don Gagnon to replace Doug McEwen behind the bench.
“Their coaching staff came in and they didn’t really pick the team,” Gagne said.
“They just got the team they had, so they are trying their best to do what they can with them.
“Still, we have to be prepared. The last game against them (a 6-1 win in Blind River on Friday night) they were running around and trying to almost maim our players and our players were getting a little bit frustrated.
“You hate to be in a position like that, but I thought it was one of our best games mentally because we didn’t retaliate, we didn’t lose our composure, we kept cool.
“There were a lot of little chippy things going on, so I was really proud of our players.”
Staying disciplined this weekend will be a key for the Eskimos, especially if the Trappers and Beavers take a lot of penalties.
The Eskimos power play (19.2%) ranks fourth in the NOJHL, while the Trappers (82.2%) are fourth in penalty killing and the Beavers (72.5%) rank dead last.
If there is one area where the Eskimos continue to struggle, it’s on the penalty kill (78.0%) where they rank seventh in the eight-team league.
The Trappers (15.6%) are only seventh in the league on the power play, however, and the Beavers (13.5%) are dead last.
“We want to play our game this weekend and not lose our composure,” Gagne said.
“We don’t want to end up being distracted by any nonsense out on the ice.”
The Gold Miners, at 26.3%, lead the NOJHL in power-play efficiency, while the Soo Thunderbirds, at 89.0%, are tops in penalty killing.