ELLIOT LAKE - The Elliot Lake Bobcats received a boost with the return of high-scoring right winger Brett Wagner for Game 2 of their NOJHL best-of-seven quarter-final series with the Abitibi Eskimos.
Playing at “60-70%,” Wagner scored a pair of goals — including a short-handed marker — to lead the Bobcats to a 5-4 victory in that contest in his first game back from a lower-body injury.
Now, the Eskimos are hoping to get the same kind of lift from the return of high-scoring left winger Brady Clouthier to their lineup for Game 3 at the Centennial Arena on Thursday night.
“I would love for that to happen, for sure,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“Wagner wasn’t even 100% and he scored two goals, one of them short handed and the other on the power play.
“I wasn’t too pleased with his second goal. There were three of us and him and we didn’t even touch him. There should have been a little bit of contact with him, instead of worrying about playing the puck. You have to take the man and we never did.
“So, yeah, I am hoping we have Mr. Clouthier in the lineup for this weekend.”
Clouthier was suspended indefinitely be the team prior to the start of the playoffs, but returned to practice on Tuesday following a meeting with Gagne.
The NOJHL first team all-star has not played since taking a devastating hit from North Bay defenceman Zachary Shankar and suffering concussion-like symptoms during an 8-1 win over the Trappers on Feb. 18 at the Jus Jordan Arena.
Prior to the injury, Clouthier had amassed 30 goals and 36 assists in 50 games with the Eskimos.
“He has been doing dryland and exerting himself more and more,” Gagne said.
“And, as of last night (Tuesday), so far, so good. We will find out today how he is doing with any symptoms and then, hopefully, all will be good.”
Bobcats coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard acknowledges that the return of Clouthier will have an impact, but he is not about to worry about it.
“I am sure it will give them a lift, for sure, but we are not going worry about what they have got, we are worry about our guys on our side,” he said.
“And they way we have been play, as of late, we have been doing a good job of shutting down (Erik) Robichaud somewhat. He hasn’t been the flash he has been out there all year, so I think if we keep doing our job we are not going to have to worry about their guys, we are going to be in good shape.”
There is also good news for both teams concerning the incident at the end of Game 2 of the series that saw all of the Bobcats players leave their bench to celebrate Mike Gambino’s game winning goal and then become involved in an altercation with the Eskimos players on the ice at the end of the game.
Three players from each team received five-minute major penalties for fighting and game misconducts and faced possible suspensions.
While no official decisions has been released from the NOJHL yet, it appears, however, that only Eskimos defenceman Kealey Cummings, who received an instigator penalty, will have to sit out Game 3.
Eskimos defenceman Bryce Robert and forward Ryan Wildman, along with Bobcats forward Gambino and defencemen Ned Simpson and Bryan McFarlane are expected to be in the line up Thursday night.
“They haven’t sent out the memo yet, but there will be suspensions,” Gagne said.
“What I can tell you right now is that we are going to be able to mostly buy them back. If a player receives a game misconduct, for example, for fighting, or something like that and they are suspended you are able to buy them back, with a percentage going to the NOHA and another amount going to the league, for administration. It is basically a pardon, with moneys involved.
“If there is an instigator penalty, however, there is no buy back, if there is a head check, a hit from behind, there is no buy back.”
Like Cummings, the Eskimos are not able to buy back any suspension associated with captain Kevin Walker’s ejection from the game in the second period for a hit to the head.
That means the Eskimos will be without three of top defencemen — Cummings, Walker and Jamey Lauzon (who will be serving the second game of the two-game suspension he received for a hit to the head penalty in Game 1 on Friday) — for Game 3.
The Eskimos will likely dress a pair of affiliate players, defenceman Brady Cloutier and forward Kez Madden, who both played for the Kapuskasing Flyers, of the GNML, this season.
The Bobcats are heading into Game 3 on a high after gaining a split of the first two games in Iroquois Falls.
“The boys are excited,” Leonard said.
“They are glad to be in our own barn, a familiar place.”
Heading into Game 3, the Bobcats anticipate having a full roster.
“We have got a couple of guys who are a little beat up, but nobody who is seriously injured, so we should have a full lineup for Thursday night,” Leonard said.
“Brett got another five days of rest, which is good for him. We kept him off his skates this week, because the more he stays off that ankle the better it is going to be for him, but he should be at 100%.
“As good as he played on Saturday, he was probably still only playing at 60-70%. He didn’t have his explosive speed, like he usually has, but just to have him back to score goals was good.
“You look at that short-handed goal he scored and it wasn’t for the speed he had, the puck just kept following his stick right to the net and it just happened to go in for him.”
Leonard is pleased with the NOJHL’s decisions with regard to the incident at the end of Game 2.
“We are happy with it, for our team, and we will have a full lineup on Thursday night,” he said.
There is no secret, from an Eskimos perspective, as to what they will have to do to find success on Thursday.
“We are just going to have to resolve their forechecking and play tighter defence,” Gagne said.
“Their forechecking (in Game 1 and 2) was incredible. Even during the season they always did that and we knew that, but they really worked hard at it and that is one area where they are really strong.
“And if they are really strong at forechecking, we are going to have to get stronger in our defensive zone. So we are going to put more emphasis on our defensive play.”
The Bobcats, on the other hand, will be looking to continue what they did well in the first two games of the series.
“We are going to have to keep putting pucks on net, putting pucks on net,” Leonard said.
“Eventually they are going to go in.
“You look at how well (Eskimos goalie Brody) Wagner played for them on Saturday night and you look at how we finally got that break from Dustin Cordeiro with 40 seconds left and then we got the break in overtime again, so it is just a matter of getting pucks to the net, shooting the puck, and they are going to go in.”
The goal that the Bobcats put past Wagner late in Game 1 of the series, helped provide the Elliot Lake shooters with a boost of confidence heading into the second game of the series.
“We knew we could play and we knew we could score, but the Igloo is a tough arena to play in and you have to get adjusted to the arena,” Leonard said.
“It is one of those unique arena where teams have a tough time coming in and playing their A game. After the first period was over in Game 1 we started finding our groove a bit and getting shots
Game 3 and Game 4 at the Centennial Arena in Elliot Lake will start at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, with Game 5 back at the Jus Jordan Arena on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.