ESPANOLA - The Abitibi Eskimos strengthened their claim on third place in the NOJHL standings with a 3-2 win over the Espanola Rivermen Sunday afternoon.
Zach Innes’ power-play goal with just over five minutes to play in the third period proved to be the game winner, as the Eskimos wrapped up their three-game road trip with a pair of victories.
Saturday night, they dispatched the Blind River Beavers 3-2 in overtime, after dropping a 9-0 decision to the Soo Thunderbirds Friday night.
“It was an incredible hockey game,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“It was almost like a playoff game given the intensity.”
Heading into Sunday afternoon’s game, the Eskimos held a one-point lead on the Rivermen but Espanola had three games in hand.
The Rivermen still have those three games in hand, but they now trail the Eskimos by three points.
“These are the games that you need to win and needing to win brings desperate measures,” Gagne said.
“The way we played on Friday was not up to par, but even yesterday (Saturday) we started putting it together.
“We played extremely well and Blind River played extremely well. Fortunately we got out of there with two points and it continued on today.”
Erik Robichaud’s 23rd goal of the season staked the Eskimos to a 1-0 lead midway through the first period of Sunday’s game, but Alex Martin got the home side back on even terms just over a minute later.
Andrew Green’s 10th goal of the season early in the second period put the Eskimos up 2-1, but once again the Rivermen fought back to tie the game at 2-2 on Brennan Dubchak’s short-handed goal.
That set the stage for Innes’ game-winning goal later in the frame.
Eskimos captain Kevin Walker assisted on all three of his team’s goals on Sunday afternoon.
“He is not a big goal scorer, or anything like that, but he took shots on net and he got them through,” Gagne said.
“It is no secret. If you get the puck on net, something is going to happen … either an assist, or a goal, or you gain momentum from keeping the puck in the offensive zone, or maybe a holding or hooking penalty. There is always something that is going to happen.”
Walker was quick to give the credit to the players who finished the plays that accounted for his three helpers.
“I just tried to get the pucks on net and things worked out,” he said.
“I can’t really take credit for it. The guys who scored the goals did all the work.”
Like his coach, the Eskimos captain was quite happy to put the game against the Thunderbirds in the rear-view mirror.
“We just came out flat on Friday, without any real emotion,” Walker said.
“But Saturday night and today, people were really flying out there, especially today. It really felt like a playoff game.
“It was a four-point game because we were able to pull two more points ahead of them. So it was definitely big.
“I think the race is going to go right down to the wire.”
Neither team could find the back of the net during the third period.
Brody Wagner, of the Eskimos, made 31 saves to earn the victory, while William King, of the Rivermen, stopped 31 of the 34 shots Abitibi fired his way while suffering the loss.
Gagne said: “We didn’t help him (Wagner) out at all on Friday.
“He was left out to dry back there. We didn’t do anything for him. He didn’t play all that bad, it’s just that we didn’t support him.
“This afternoon, I can recall one save he made … it was 2-2 at the time … and he made an incredible save.
“The player had an opportunity in front of the net, after taking a great pass from the corner and he made just an unbelievable save.
“He was focused and he came to play.”
And unlike Friday, Wagner had plenty of assistance from his teammates on Sunday afternoon.
“It was a 20-player effort,” Gagne said.
The line of Ryan Wildman, Brenden Locke and Landon Heibert played a key role in Saturday night’s win over the Beavers, netting all three goals.
Wildman scored the first two, while Locke netted the game winner in overtime.
“He (Wildman) played really, really well,” Gagne said.
“He brings experience. He brings that little touch around the net. Wildman makes everybody look good because he is a team player. He always makes good passes, always has a good effort defensively.”
The coach was also impressed with the youngest member of that line.
“For a 16 year old, he (Locke) is playing beyond his years,” Gagne said.
“He has been one of our better players, defensively, offensively. It is nice to see him develop into the type of player he has become.
“He has had a great season.”
The Beavers got goals from Tim Perks and Liam Finn.
Sylvain Miron made 30 saves while recording the win for the Eskimos, while Dylan Knox, of the Beavers, stopped 42 of the 45 shots the Eskimos fired his way.
“Sylvain played really well,” Gagne said.
“Blind River played well and he came up with some big saves.
“So it’s nice to see that we have this duo of hot goaltenders again.”
The first game of the Eskimos three-game road trip, Friday night in Sault Ste. Marie, is likely one the team wishes it could forget.
Darcy Haines and Gavin Burbach each scored three goals, as the Thunderbirds pounded the Eskimos 9-0.
Haines also had three helpers, good for a six-point night.
Joey Miller, Anthony Miller and Matthew Mitchell had the other goals for the Thunderbirds.
Brian Kment needed to make only 19 saves to record his second shutout of the season for the Thunderbirds.
The Eskimos Wagner made 34 saves while suffering the loss.
Winger Shane Hiley picked up a three-game suspension in the game against the Thunderbirds and he has one remaining to serve following the games Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
Winger David Becker served the fourth and final game of his four-game suspension Sunday afternoon.
The Eskimos next game is Wednesday night against the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake.
Their next home game will be on Saturday night when they host the Elliot Lake Bobcats at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.