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Eskimos lose Top 2 centres

IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos have been stung by an Ontario Hockey League team’s slow start and the injury bug.

The Sarnia Sting have struggled to score goals and have won just five of their first 17 starts.

So they have summoned the Eskimos No. 1 centre, Erik Robichaud, in hopes of turning things around.

“We did the transfer just over an hour ago,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne, Wednesday afternoon.

“They are hurting right now and they are not doing very well and they needed some offence and he had been playing really well offensively here, so he is going to be moving up.”

Since returning to the Abitibi lineup, Robichaud (13, 12-12-24, 6) who had tryouts with the Sting and a handful of other OHL teams earlier this season, has been averaging almost two points per game.

And the Eskimos have also lost No. 2 centre Ryan Wildman (19, 8-8-16, 10) to a thumb injury.

“He fractured his thumb last game,” Gagne said.

“He is in a cast and he has an appointment with the orthopedics this afternoon. We will find out what the diagnosis is after that … how long he will be out.”

Prior to learning that his two top centres would be missing, Gagne had suggested the Eskimos would need to bring their A game if they were to beat the visiting Soo Thunderbirds Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.

Given the lineup revisions, even that might not be enough to secure a victory. It might take their A+ game to get the job done.

“It is definitely going to be an interesting game, because we are missing our No. 1 centreman and our No. 2 centreman,” Gagne said.

“We are going to have to play it really simple. We are going to have to play strong defensively and be patient with our chances and when we get them take advantage of them.

“We are going to have some players who are going to be playing in new roles, with new responsibilities of playing on the first and second lines.

“It will be interesting. Some of the kids will rise to the occasion.”

Auditions will be held during practice this week to see who will man those two centre spots as there likely won’t be any reinforcements arriving before Saturday night.

With the loss of Robichaud, along with the injury to Wildman and forward Marc Dube, who has a concussion and is expected to miss at least another week, the Eskimos are down to 19 healthy players, including eight defencemen.

That will likely mean a couple of those blue liners will be pressed into service as forwards Saturday night.

The Thunderbirds are perched atop the NOJHL standings and are ranked third among Canadian Junior Hockey League clubs.

Only the Fort McMurray Oil Barons (AJHL) and the Steinbach Pistons (MJHL) are ranked higher than the Thunderbirds, who have lost just twice in regulation and once in overtime, while amassing 37 points in 21 starts.

With 82 goals, the Thunderbirds at the top scoring team in the NOJHL and also have the best defensive record, with just 36 goals allowed.

That’s a pretty tough combination to beat.

“They have excellent goaltending,” Gagne said.

“They have a good defence that moves the puck well. They play strong defensively and they have three good lines that can score goals on a consistent basis.

“That’s pretty much what you want as a hockey team and they have it.

“So we really need to play our A+ game, I like what you said, A+ sounds good.”

The Thunderbirds’ attack features balanced scoring, although Gavin Burbach (21, 15-15-30, 28), who ranks third in the NOJHL in scoring, has been their most effective forward.

Anthony Miller (21, 9-15-24, 8), Joey Miller (21, 6-11-17, 31), Tyler Jones (21, 4-11-15, 12) and Nicolas Tassone (21, 8-7-15, 4) are also enjoying solid seasons, while Grant Syrette (8, 4-5-9, 19), Derek Battagin (5, 1-4-5, 4) and Matt Zalewski (4, 2-2-4, 2) are each averaging at least a point a game.

Joel Horodziejczyk (780:00, 11-2-0, 1.69, .934, 2) is clearly the top puck stopper in the NOJHL, while his understudy, Brian Kment (490:54, 7-1-0, 1.71, .921, 0), has been just as impressive.

The Thunderbirds have won both encounters with the Eskimos this season — 5-2 in Iroquois Falls on Sept. 13 and 5-1 in Sault Ste. Marie on Oct. 13.

Zalewski had two goals in the first encounter, while Horodziejczyk made 33 saves.

The second game saw both Burbach and Miller score twice, with Horodziejczyk making 23 saves.

In each case, the Thunderbirds built up sizeable leads (3-0 in the first game and 4-0 in the second game) before the Eskimos were able to hit the scoreboard.

“Missing Wildman and Robichaud, the players are definitely going to have to realize that defence comes first,” Gagne said.

“We don’t have 50-goal scorers and we can’t afford to just take chances. A good start and a good defensive effort, with lots of shots on net will be key.

“If we play well defensively and if we are conscious of eliminating our mistakes, that is where we can do some damage.

“We have to be tight, tight defensively, so we are definitely going to work on that, that’s for sure.”

Saturday’s game at the Jus Jordan Arena is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.