TIMMINS - If the smile on Braddock Baalerud’s face was any wider he might have difficulty donning his facemask and helmet.
The 17-year-old Aurora native made 31 saves to earn the victory in his first ever Junior ‘A’ start, a 2-1 decision against the previously unbeaten Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
“I was a bit nervous to start the game,” Baalerud said.
“I knew I had to play well and support my team back there. I knew it would be a good game.”
The only goal Baalerud surrendered was Dylan Rosen’s marker midway through the first period.
That goal put the defending NOJHL champions in front 1-0 and the score remained that way until the third period.
Eskimos captain Kevin Walker scored a short-handed goal to get his team back on even terms just over 12 minutes into the final frame.
Five-and-a-half minutes later, Cameron Etherington scored his first goal as an Eskimo, a power-play marker that would prove to be the game winner.
The Gold Miners had a couple of excellent chances to tie the game up, including a breakaway and a K.L. forward left all alone in front of Baalerud, but he was up to the test.
“I just got a bit lucky on those,” he said.
“I just had to stay focused the whole time.”
Baalerud was quick to give credit for the victory to his teammates, who minimized the number of quality chances they gave to Kirkland Lake.
“Our guys had a couple of good chances and they buried a couple of rebounds,” he said.
“They played great in front of me. My team held us in there the whole time and if they hadn’t scored those two goals we wouldn’t have been up. I was just so glad we got the win.”
The win, in his first Junior ‘A’ start was extra special for Baalerud, given that it came against one of the top teams in the NOJHL.
“It feels great,” he said.
“I had to work for this game (in practice all week) and I think that made it feel even better.”
Timmins native Devon Debastos got the start in goal for the Gold Miners Friday night and made 22 saves while taking the loss.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne — who had challenged Baalerud all week during practice to prove to him he was ready to start — was just as happy as his puck stopper following Friday night’s victory.
“I thought in the first period we really didn’t compete that much,” he said.
“We played, but we were just playing nonchalant. We talked about it between the first and second period and, you know what, we had that competitiveness in the second period.
“The third period, we were really determined, but under control.
“Yah, we made some mistakes here and there but that’s hockey. It happens.
“But in general, we played well as a team. We were in control and we were aggressive. We were competing for the puck. We got it out. We dumped it in deep. We were in the offensive zone with control and whenever we made a little bit of a mistake we had Braddock Baalerud to back us up and he did an extremely great job tonight for us.
“It was nice for him to play well tonight. He had a tough couple of weeks in practice and he was down … his confidence level wasn’t there and he worked hard this week. He was really involved. He got the start and he played extremely well.”
Gagne, who does not normally like to announce in advance who is going to start in goal, did not hesitate in stating “he is going to be in there again tomorrow night,” when the Eskimos host the Cochrane Crunch at the Jus Jordan Arena.
Friday night’s 2-1 victory over the Gold Miners was easily the Eskimos best game 2014-15, in terms of minimizing their mistakes and adhering to Gagne’s program.
“Let’s put it this way,” he said.
“We watched video Wednesday night and we had a meeting last night and went over all the program, our terminology, all of the situations and tonight I can honest to God say the mistakes that were made were very minimal.”
As good as the Eskimos might feel after Friday night’s victory, the NOJHL is not about to award the Eskimos the Copeland Cup after beating the defending champs once in the regular season.
“We still have a lot of work to do, believe me,” Gagne said.
“But it is nice to know that we can win. It is contagious.”
Among the players that Gagne acknowledged played well Friday night were defenceman Jamey Lauzon, forwards Brady Clouthier, Etherington, Ryan Attwood, Kezmin Madden, Brenden Locke and Nicholas Hway.
For Locke, it was his first game back after serving a two-game suspension picked up for being involved in a second fight in the same stoppage in play against Powassan on Sept. 6.
“He brings poise and experience to the lineup, even though he is only 17 years old,” Gagne said.
Gold Miners coach and general manager Marc Lafleur was not pleased with his team’s play Friday night, although he was not surprised.
“I didn’t like our game tonight,” he said.
“I saw it coming, from the pre-game skate we had this morning. We were asleep. We were asleep then and we were asleep tonight.
“We knew how they were going to play us in the neutral zone and we just weren’t attentive to the details.
“We were always reacting a half second too slow and at this level a half second is the difference between being able to chip a puck and having a scrum ensue.”
While the easy thing to do would be to toss out Friday night’s game as an anomaly, given that the Gold Miners will be facing off against the Mattawa Blackhawks in less than 24 hours, but that isn’t necessarily the approach Lafleur is planning to take.
“I don’t want to forget this,” he said.
“We have to address the issues. I have said since Day 1, before tonight when we were 3-0-0-0, that we weren’t as good as what the stats suggested and tonight I was proven right.
“Hopefully it will be a reality check for a lot of these guys who have to understand you have to bring it every night. They are just not going to hand it to you. You are going to have to work for your opportunities and you are going to have to work for your ice time.”
Lafleur was happy with the effort of Steven Babin, the NOJHL’s leading scorer, as well as 16-year-old forward Joel Fortin.
“I thought in the third period he (Fortin) could have been our best forward offensively,” he said.
“He competed, which a lot of guys didn’t.”