IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos drew first blood in their best-of-seven NOJHL quarter-final series against the Elliot Lake Bobcats Friday night.
The Eskimos got first-period goals from Ryan Tront and Ryan Wildman and then smothered the Bobcats to earn a 2-1 victory.
“It was a 2-1 victory, the first period, that’s one, the third period, that’s two and their one was for the second period,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We didn’t play well in the second period. We were just watching them play and they were forechecking us really hard. We had a little brain fart in the second period, but the third period, I was really happy with the way we played.
“It was smart hockey. We didn’t take any high risks. Yes, they scored on a deflection, but that’s normal. It happens, but I am really proud of the way we played today.”
The Eskimos put their full attention toward playing defensive hockey in all three zones during the third period, opting not to take too many chances in the offensive zone.
“We weren’t taking any chances in the neutral zone,” Gagne said.
“We were dumping it in. We weren’t making any high-risk plays. We were using the glass and staying calm.
“We played smart and I was really happy with the way we played.”
The Bobcats, known around the league for shooting from anywhere, were kept mainly to the perimeter Friday night.
“They were shooting from all over the place, but Mr. (Brody) Wagner was doing his job back there and taking care of business,” Gagne said.
Wagner lost his shutout bid with 40 seconds remaining in the third period, when Aaron Carmichael deflected a shot past him, but he was more concerned about the victory than any personal glory.
“It was great,” he said.
“We played a smart game, like coach said. They had a lot of shots from the outside and a lot of shots that I could see the whole way, so that is always good.
“For the first two periods and even for most of the third, until they pulled the goalie near the end, there wasn’t too much traffic in front of me.
“There were a lot of rebounds that my defence cleared out right away, so there was a lot less net presence than I am used to.”
Wagner admitted it would have been nice to get the shutout, but he was not too shook up about losing it later.
“It doesn’t really matter that much,” he said.
“It is all about the win, but it would have been nice to get the shutout. Sometimes it doesn’t happen though. I am just happy with the win.”
Wagner knew he had to be alert, given the Bobcats willingness to shoot the puck from just about anywhere.
“It felt like they were just trying to get shots whenever they could,” he said.
“You have got to be aware at all times. You never know when they are going to throw it on the net, but for the most part, those are the kind of games you want to play in.
“Our defence did a good job of keeping them to the outside, which is always helpful.”
Bobcats coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard thought his team played well enough to win Friday night and deserved a better fate than a 2-1 loss.
“I thought we dominated the whole second and third period,” he said.
“Their first shot in the third period didn’t come until there were about seven minutes left. At one point the shots were like 8-0 for us, but Wagner played really big tonight.
“Our goalie (Alex Bitsakis) played really big, also, but going down 2-0 early against a good goalie who always plays well against us is tough.
“We definitely had the opportunities. I felt like we were the better team for two out of the three periods, but we just weren’t getting the breaks, or the bounces. We hit a couple of posts there in the second period. That is just how the game goes.
“The second goal they scored our goalie got run over and then we ended up being short handed after the play. That was a back breaker right there on the road, down 2-0 and you have to kill a penalty after your goalie just got run over.
“That is a tough one to swallow for us, but we battled all night and the guys put in a good effort.”
Leonard is hoping that the Bobcats get off to a quicker start on Game 2 and that they bury a few more of their chances.
“Considering we didn’t have (leading scorer Brett) Wagner in the lineup, we had tons of glorious opportunities,” he said.
“(Bryan) McFarlane got robbed in the first period, twice, on a couple of amazing saves by Wagner that I didn’t think he was going to get to and he got there.”
The Bobcats Wagner is listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury and it is unclear whether he will make his series debut Saturday night, or back in Elliot Lake for Game 3 on Thursday.
“We will see how he is tomorrow, but we are not going to take any chances,” Leonard said.
“We have days to rest up after tomorrow and it takes seven games to win a series, so we don’t want to rush things.”
Gagne took exception to an incident midway through the second period in which Eskimos 16-year-old defenceman Jamey Lauzon was banished from the game for a head check.
“The little hit with Lauzon, the check from behind, it was a questionable call, but the poor kid is going to the bench and their coach is just yelling at him and yelling at him,” he said.
“There is no reason for that. If you were a player and I am talking to him right now, if he was a player, let it go. Just coach now, instead of screaming and yelling at a 16 year old.”
Gagne wasn’t sure immediately after the game if Lauzon would be facing a suspension.
“We’ll see what will happen with that,” he said.
Fans can expect to see the same kind of hockey from the Eskimos in Game 2 on Saturday night.
“We know what is coming at us,” Gagne said.
“It is a lot of forechecking and they have got speed and they are programmed to dump it in and chase it, so we are just going to have to adjust to that and go from there.
Wagner made 32 saves while picking up the victory for the Eskimos, while Bitsakis turned aside 25 shots for the Bobcats.
Game 2 at the Jus Jordan Arena on Saturday is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.