COCHRANE - The winds of change have blown through the dressing rooms of the Cochrane Crunch and the Abitibi Eskimos with gale force since the former humbled the latter in a home-and-home series back in October.
When the puck drops at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane Friday night and then at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls 24 hours later, there could be as many as 13 players getting their first taste of the Highway 11 rivalry.
Since the Crunch swept back-to-back games by scores of 9-3 and 10-3 on Oct. 21 and Oct. 22, Cochrane has waived good bye to goalie Matt Young (traded to Powassan), defencemen Ned Simpson (traded to Sudbury) and James Vuillemot (traded to Powassan), as well as forwards Marco Luciani (traded to Mattawa) and Aaron Carmichael (traded to Elliot Lake) .
In their place, the Crunch have welcomed goalie Ben Auger (acquired from Powassan), defenceman Brandon Janveau (acquired from Elliot Lake) and forwards Ian Skinner (acquired from the Nipawin Hawks, of the SJHL), Jake Ellingson (acquired from Weyburn Red Wings, of the SJHL), Blake Peavey (acquired from the Wellington Dukes, of the OJHL) and Henry Berger (acquired from the Neepawa Natives, of the MJHL).
In addition, Cochrane picked up forward Josh Moore from the Nickel Barons, but he will not be joining the Crunch until December, because of school commitments at Cambrian College, in Sudbury.
The Eskimos, meanwhile, shipped out defenceman Jamey Lauzon (traded to the Kirkland Lake), defenceman Nick Minerva (traded to the Fort Frances Lakers, of the SIJHL) — who sat out the games against the Crunch in October — and forward Daniel Nicholas (released).
Arriving to bolster the Eskimos’ lineup since that time are defencemen Ryan Reeves (acquired from the Fort Frances Lakers, of the SIJHL) and Nick Hautanen (acquired from Kirkland Lake), as well as forwards Tristan Salesse (acquired from the Fort Frances Lakers, of the SIJHL), Patrick Picard (acquired from Kirkland Lake), Jake Holland (acquired from the Fort Frances Lakers, of the SIJHL) and Cosimo Amore (acquired from Kirkland Lake).
In addition, the Eskimos welcomed and then waived good bye to Shawn Nobes, who was acquired from the Cole Harbour Colts, of the NSJHL, and then sent home.
The lineups of both teams have been affected by the injury bug, as well, with the Crunch missing forward/defenceman Jake Gevaart, who has been sent home to recuperate from back issues, and the Eskimos missing forward Scott Peng, who suffered a lower-body injury when he collided with Reeves in practice a couple of days after the deal with Fort Frances went down.
“We have been trying to upgrade our team and this weekend will be the first time we get to play with all of the new players that we have brought in,” said Crunch coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard.
“This will be the first time we will have all of our new players in the lineup at once, so we will see how our product is coming along.
“Abitibi has made a lot of changes, as well, so we will see how their team is coming along.”
Despite all the changes, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne knows what to expect from the Crunch.
“They like that offence,” he said.
“They really like to play that offensive game, but right now we have four good lines, who each have different responsibilities.
“We are going to have to rely on our first couple of lines to take care of business and have the others play tighter on defence.”
Gagne would much rather see a game similar to the 2-1 victory the Eskimos earned on home ice in their first encounter with the Crunch, than something like the 9-3 and 10-3 defensive meltdowns his squad suffered in the more recent home-and-home series.
“I would love for us to play the same way,” he said.
“We have to have great goaltending and tight defence, then if we can score one on the power play …
“It is all about momentum, not just scoring goals but also preventing goals.
“If we do make mistakes, let’s get some great goaltending and make the big stop.
“We need to wait for our chances and then capitalize when we get the chances.”
The Eskimos have shown that they have the offence to dig themselves out of a hole, if they fall behind early like they did against Elliot Lake, but Gagne realizes the odds of that happening on a regular basis are not great.
“It is easier to get the lead and protect it than trying to play catch-up hockey,” he said.
“When you have a commitment to playing great defence, it can frustrate the other team and cause them to make more mistakes.”
What will the Crunch have to do to carry over the success they enjoyed in the last home-and-home series?
“The key for us this weekend is going to be playing together, as a team,” Leonard said.
“We are going to have to try to stick to the systems we have in place, because we do have systems.
“Sometimes the players like to get away from them, but we do work on them a lot.
“Like I have said before, when you have a lot of speed on your team, a lot of guys are kind of hard to hold back.
“So, our goal this weekend is to stick to the game plan and try to get four points.”
The fact that just one point separates the two teams in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League East Division standings heading into the series should only add to the intensity.
“We are not going to give up trying to chase down the top spot (in the league), either,” Leonard said.
“That is going to be goal and I am sure it is Abitibi’s goal and it is all three team’s (including Kirkland Lake) goal. We all want to be the big guy, but so far Kirkland Lake has got the lead.”
Regardless of where the two teams sit in the standings, however, there likely will never be any shortage of intensity.
“When our two teams play, it is always going to be interesting,” Leonard said.
“We have some pretty good skill guys and neither team likes to lose.”
Given that such a short distance separates Cochrane and Iroquois Falls, it is a pretty safe bet that there will be a lot of fans of the road teams bolstering attendance in both the Tim Horton Event Centre Friday night and the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
Game time for both contests is 7:30 p.m.