IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos sit alone in third place in the NOJHL standings following a convincing 5-3 win over the Espanola Rivermen at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
The victory vaulted the Eskimos two points in front of the Rivermen, although Espanola still has three games in hand.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased with how well his team played “Eskimos hockey.”
“We worked it in down low and it was down low where we were successful,” he said.
“We were getting some opportunities. We were getting some shots from the defence and whenever we came out of the corners we came out with the puck. We had good puck protection.”
While the Eskimos were still missing a number of key players, the lineup was bolstered by the return of Landon Hiebert.
“What a difference it makes,” Gagne said.
“He comes out with the puck and generates momentum all the time. He was an awesome addition because he was not around the last couple of games.”
Gagne also had praise for defenceman Bryce Robert, who wasn’t a factor on the scoreboard but played a strong game.
“Tonight he showed leadership,” he said.
“He was communicating with the players. He was aware of the situations on the ice. He is a big kid, but he is also agile. He has got good hands and he moves well.
“Last Friday he was one of the better players when we played North Bay, so hopefully he will continue.”
Robert, who has been used up front for much of the season on the checking line, was recognized by his teammates again on Saturday night, as he was awarded the hard had that goes to the hardest working player on the team.
“We were just keeping he play simple out there tonight,” he said.
“We were moving the puck fast and playing our game, forechecking hard.”
Given a choice, Robert would rather play a regular shift on defence than up on the checking line, but being a team player he is ready to take on whatever role the club requires.
“It was nice to be back doing what I know how to do out there,” he said.
“I just love playing defence. On defence, you are the last man back other than the goalie, so if you mess up you have the goalie backing you up.
“If you are a forward you have to forecheck hard and there is more skating. You have to move the puck, get it deep and be aggressive.”
At 6-2, 210 lbs., Robert is head and shoulders the biggest player on the Eskimos roster this season.
The Eskimos took control of the game early and never let the visitors gain, or sustain any momentum.
Ryan Tront got things rolling when he beat Rivermen starting netminder William King at the 5:57 mark of the opening frame.
Brennan Roy snapped a wrist shot over King’s shoulder from in close less than three minutes later to extend the Eskimos lead to 2-0.
The Rivermen were finally able to get on the board at the 11:56 mark when Brennan Dubchak snapped a wrist shot past Eskimos goalie Brody Wagner on the power play, but even that failed to provide Espanola with a sustainable spark.
Andrew Green extended the Eskimos lead to 3-1 with less than three minutes remaining in the opening period and Espanola coach Tom McCarthy had seen enough of King’s work and opted to switch to Marc Terriault.
The new puck stopper held the Eskimos at bay for the remainder of the period, but he had no better luck in keeping the home side off the scoreboard in the second period than his predecessor had in the opening 20 minutes.
Brady Clouthier picked up his team-leading 27th goal of the season 6:02 into the second period and Brenden Locke extended the home side’s advantage to 5-1 seven-and-a-half minutes later.
Clouthier’s night would end just over five minutes into the final period when he was assessed a double minor and a game misconduct for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Rivermen were finally able to break through the Eskimos defensive zone coverage for a couple of goals midway through the third period.
Robert Smythe and Byron Sam scored goals just over two minutes apart, but that would be as close as the Rivermen would come to getting back on even terms.
Espanola coach Tom McCarthy was not impressed with his team’s play in Iroquois Falls Saturday night, or the night before in Kirkland Lake (a 4-2 loss to the Gold Miners).
“As of late, we seem to have a hard time getting out of the gate,” he said.
“The first period last night and again tonight the same thing … although last night it was the end of the game we fell apart. It would be really nice to see us put 60 minutes together.
“We are not playing with the responsibility of playing defence. That’s the biggest thing. We are not playing on the right side of the puck.
“It looks like we are playing a lot of run-and-gun hockey. Believe me, that is not what is being taught.
“It is just a matter of the players not executing and continuing to do so. There are only so many consequences and things you can take away from them. You have to continue to be resilient.
“We have got to be able to make that change and it’s a huge change. We almost have to reinvent the game, I think.”
When asked whether the goaltending change he made it the first period was because of his puck stoppers play, or a desire to change the momentum of the hockey game, McCarthy said: “It is always for both. Usually the first indication is the way the goaltender is playing and at the time you are looking for a shot in the arm. You are looking for the next goalie to come in and get hungry … to shut the door. But it is not always the goaltender. Sometimes he gets left out to dry.”
Goaltending is only part of the equation, however.
“It just looks like we are trying to run and score every time we get on the ice,” McCarthy said.
“I was always taught the opposite.”
The inefficiency of the Espanola power play was another factor in the outcome of Saturday night’s game.
“When the opportunities came, we didn’t seize the moment,” McCarthy said.
“We just weren’t executing how we were directed to execute and when that happens it is a chain reaction.
“When the one guy doesn’t do what he is supposed to do and the next guy doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, then everybody is sort of out of position and out of sync.
“I thought we were a little too much on the perimeter tonight on our power play. Nobody was getting inside and forcing the scrum for the deflection, or the screen in front of the net.
“We were playing a little too pretty.”
The only solution, from McCarthy’s perspective is to get back to the basics and keep working hard.
“No question, that is what we directed ourselves to last week and last night I saw a lot of it until the last six minutes of the game,” he said.
“Then tonight I didn’t see any until the last six minutes of the game. Of the two nights, we might have played one hockey game and maybe if we would have strung that together in one night we might have won one of the two games, but we go home hanging our heads a little bit.
“It’s time to sort of look in the mirror and see who we are and stop playing wishy, washy hockey.”
Wagner made 25 saves to pick up the victory for the Eskimos, while Espanola starter King didn’t stop a puck while taking the loss. Terriault blocked 25 of the 27 shots the Eskimos fired at him.
ESKIMOS NOTES: The Eskimos were missing defenceman Ryan Kerr (suspension), forward Shane Hiley (injury), forward Ryan Wildman (injury) and forward David Becker (suspension) … The Eskimos were 0-5 on the power play, while the Rivermen were 1-6 with the man advantage … Attendance was listed at 393 … The Eskimos will be on the road for three games next weekend. They will take on the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie Friday night, the Beavers in Blind River Saturday night and Rivermen in Espanola Sunday afternoon.