The Kirkland Lake Blue Devils have lost the only eight Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League games they have played in franchise history.
They have scored just 18 goals — second fewest in the league (Blind River Beavers have scored 12, but played two fewer games) — and allowed a league worst 58 goals (19 more than the Beavers).
Still, Abitibi Eskimos coach and GM Paul Gagne isn’t about to look past this weekend’s home-and-home series with his squad’s newest rival.
The Eskimos and Blue Devils face off Friday night in Kirkland Lake and then renew hostilities on Saturday at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.
“We call those type of games four-point games and we need to continue playing the way we played Saturday against Sudbury,” Gagne said. “I thought we played an excellent game. “We had some mishaps in the defensive zone and it cost us a couple of goals, but all in all I was really happy with the way we played compared to the weekend before.”
Heading into Friday, the Eskimos are tied for second place in the Eastern Division with North Bay, six points up on Kirkland Lake. A pair of Kirkland Lake victories could see the Blue Devils close the gap to just two points, while a pair of Abitibi victories would see the Eskimos widen the margin to 10 points.
“We are going there on Friday and we will try to put everything on the table, like we did against Sudbury,” Gagne said.
The coach and GM knows that eventually Kirkland Lake will find its way to the win column.
“We can’t go there and take things for granted … that they haven’t won a game yet,” he said. “We’ve got to play some better hockey and more consistent hockey and continue to progress. “Right now the players’ focus is on progressing their play and raising their confidence.”
Gagne feels the key for the Eskimos will be to work on their assignments and not worry too much about what team they are playing. “The way we played last game, we have an expectation now of the players,” he said. “They are playing more within a role that they have to play … either their on the first line, second line, third line or fourth line, whatever it is. “They understand that’s their role, so I feel confident.”
With seven regular season games under their belts, Gagne has been working this week to roll out more of the team’s program. “We will try to keep them focused that way,” he said. “And if they continue to progress, I will be confident, but we don’t take things for granted.”
One advantage the Eskimos will enjoy for Saturday night’s game is a large crowd at the Jus Jordan Arena.
“When you average almost 700 people a game it is certainly a good feeling,” Gagne said. “It’s like an extra player on the ice.”
Heading into the weekend, the Eskimos will be without centre Jeffrey Gagne who has missed three games now with a shoulder injury. The Val d’Or native had been centring the team’s top line and was averaging two points a game before he was injured. “He is sitting at home, waiting to see a doctor,” Gagne said. “I think he has got to get an MRI on his shoulder, but it doesn’t look good. “It has been separated many times and he has missed a few games because of it.”
Gagne has had to juggle his lines the past couple of games, with Delmer Moses taking over on the top line with Marc-Alain Begin and rookie Jacob Kord. Begin, for his part, has not missed a beat.
“He’s an elite player and he brings lots to the table,” Gagne said. “Even in practice he works hard and he is a leader on and off the ice.” Moses’ forechecking ability and Kord’s speed complemented Begin’s game on Saturday. “Those three guys are really playing with lots of confidence and we are hoping that it continues,” Gagne said. “If they can play together like that they can be a dominant line in the league.”
And captain Richard Therrien has been teamed with Jordan Delaurier to form an effective second unit. “That line played really well,” Gagne said. “They also had a responsibility … they were playing against the big line for Sudbury and shutting them down. “I am very happy with the way they played, but this weekend I am hoping to change the roles around again.
“We have got a third line right now that I would like to take that responsibility of being a shutdown line.” The Eskimos program stresses a defence first approach to the game.
“A good defence is a good offence,” Gagne said. “The better we play defensively, within our program, the more opportunities we are going to get. “If you play within our program you get compensated for it … by getting more opportunities.”
Solid goaltending is an important part of a good defence, of course, and J.P. Fecteau continue to excel on Saturday night.
”In the third period on a breakaway he made a spectacular save with his right foot,” Gagne said. “We have been happy with the way he has played. He has had just one or two games that there might have been goals he would have wished he could have stopped.”
The coach and GM expects to split the games Friday and Saturday between Fecteau and Martin Bilodeau — although he is not ready to commit yet as to which goalie will start in which game.
“The young Bilodeau has come along pretty good too … whenever we have put him in there he was not nervous, or anything. He was well prepared. So we would like to give him an opportunity this weekend.”
Gagne has also been pleased with the way his defensive unit has been playing in front of Fecteau and Bilodeau this season.
“We have a new addition in Nicolas Fournier who has come in and played really well and scored a couple of goals for us,” he said. “He is playing a lot of minutes for us.”
The coach and GM also singled out the play of a couple of veteran blue-liners. “Young (Karl) Spenard, we are really happy with and the young (Kevin) Walker just came back from an injury. We are happy. He is a stay-at-home defenceman who likes to play physical.
“The young (Kealey) Cummings is 16 years old and he has been playing on the first line, playing power play, penalty killing, so he’s adjusting to the tempo of hockey here in this league. “He has adapted really well and he is really mature for his age. ”
And obviously Justin Kord is not very big in size, but plays really big. He’s smart and has good vision, so we are really happy with him. “He has got a very competitive edge and that’s important. He has been on the ice for a couple of goals against and the coaching staff lets him know about it and it is not often that he does the same mistake twice.”