When the Abitibi Eskimos defeated the North Bay Trappers in Game 6 Wednesday night they earned the right to meet the Sudbury Jr. Wolves in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League Eastern Division Finals.
They earned something else, however, that might be even more important — two days of rest.
“We will be taking the next two days and resting,” Eskimos coach and GM Paul Gagne said Thursday afternoon.
“Resting is more important than practice right now.”
After playing five games in six nights, that is understandable.
Road weary and fighting a spate of injuries, the Eskimos were pushed to the limit Wednesday night before they were finally able to put the Trappers away.
“We were at 20-second to 30-second shifts and we were rolling only three lines … and we only had five defencemen,” Gagne said.
Goaltender J.P. Fecteau, who recorded his third shutout of the series, held the Eskimos in the game for the first two periods.
“I don’t know what happened, but the third period we just generated a little bit more offence and all of a sudden we had momentum,” Gagne said.
“It was just like it was their first game of the playoffs … we had so much energy in the third period.
“We generated a lot of offensive opportunities … our forechecking was there and I think we were in the offensive zone a good seven minutes.
”We outshot them 21-7 and they were great chances and obviously the one chance was a great pass by (Erik) Robichaud to (Preston) Lacasse and Lacasse made sure to put it in.”
Gagne was not surprised — impressed maybe, but not surprised — by the effort turned in by Fecteau to get them to that point of the game.
“He made some great saves, but we gave them a lot of shots from the outside,” Gagne said.
“His job is just to stop the puck and hold onto it, but they had three or four great opportunities and he made the big saves.
“But we were always under control in the defensive zone. We weren’t running around … it was always under control and the goalie, he helps us be under control because he is there to make the big stops.
“For him to have those three shutouts in six games is incredible. I don’t remember seeing that … never.”
While goaltenders get most of the credit for shutouts, it is important to note that they are difficult to achieve without all six players on the ice being focused to shutting down the other team’s offence.
“It’s compliments to our players, the program and our goaltender,” Gagne said.
“Everybody has to lead and he (Fecteau) is a big leader back there.”
The coach is hopeful that a couple of days rest before the start of the Sudbury series will help the team’s walking wounded.
“I am hoping (Kevin) Ratte will be able to play Saturday, he should be able to skate,” Gagne said.
“The other two, (Cameron) Carns and (Jeremiah) Coon-Come, with the last four days they have had off (both missed Game 5 at home and Game 6 in North Bay), coming into Saturday, I am hoping to get some better news. If not, it might have to be a couple of more days for them.”
With the three players missing on Wednesday, the Eskimos were forced to play forwards Shane Innes and Richard Therrien on defence.
That might not be necessary for the Sudbury series, however, even if the injured players are not ready to return.
“We have some affiliate players,” Gagne said.
“Yesterday it wasn’t right to bring in some affiliate players who don’t know our program.
“Some of them haven’t even been on the ice. They have been eliminated from playoffs for about a week or two weeks now.
“But I am going to play it by ear. Even if we are down one or two players it’s not the end of the world … but we are looking at it for sure.”
Gagne doesn’t blame the Eskimos spate of injuries on the scheduling for the North Bay series.
“Injuries happen, the one, he was trying to hit the player and he sort of tweaked his lower body area,” he said.
“The others were just freak accidents. I won’t blame it on (scheduling) because the two had only played four games. They are just hockey related injuries and those things happen.”
While the Eskimos head into Saturday a little banged up and tired, the Jr. Wolves are well rested and healthy after finishing off Temiscaming in four straight.
“Who knows,” Gagne said.
“I believe the first game might be a disadvantage because they are going to come in at full force with four lines and give it their all.
“And in our situation, we are not going to be going in there and forechecking and putting pressure on them and dominating … I don’t think that is going to be our style of play … not for the first few games anyway.”
“If we do, it might be for a period or so because we won’t be able to sustain the physical part of it.”
The Wolves won seven of the 10 regular season games to two teams played this year, but the Eskimos took the final two — one in Sudbury and one in Iroquois Falls — and put up eight goals in each.
“The most important were the last two,” Gagne said.
“They know that they are not just going to come in here and demoralize us.
“(Those last two games) it was hockey … we adjusted and we had the full squad and we had some good goaltending and the players were buying into the program.
“It was a different team when we played them.”
Shutting down the Wolves attack will be the key, with Evan Daciuk, Zach McGillis, Nick Esposto, Adam Di Brina and Joel Gagnon being the most dangerous Sudbury skaters.
“They have three or four elite players,” Gagne said.
“And if we can contain them a little bit, then you never know what is going to happen.
“It’s a mental game. Once you start believing you can win that makes a world of difference.
“It’s a confidence builder, not only knowing we can beat them, but also the players believing in themselves and the way they are playing together.”