IROQUOIS FALLS - Third place in the NOJHL standings will be on the line when the Abitibi Eskimos host the Espanola Rivermen at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
Pending the outcome of Espanola’s game against the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake Friday night, the Eskimos will either lead the Rivermen by one point, be tied with them in the standings, or trail them by one point.
And with each team only having a handful of games remaining to play in the regular season, the outcome of Saturday night’s game will likely go a long way toward determining which team will win the battle for third place.
After Saturday, the Eskimos will have three games remaining — at Kirkland Lake on Sunday, home against Kirkland Lake on Monday and home against North Bay the following Saturday.
Playing three games in three nights won’t be easy for the Eskimos, especially given that two of them are against the Gold Kings, it is nothing they haven’t done before.
“Considering the injuries that we have, yes three games in three nights is not going to be easy, but we have done that before,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“You tend to not want to do too much extra. You want to play a simple sytem and take advantage of your opportunities.”
The Rivermen, meanwhile, will still have four games to play — at North Bay on Sunday, at Sudbury on Wednesday, home against Sudbury on Friday and home against Kirkland Lake on the following Sunday.
“We are going to have to play some great hockey, play some aggressive hockey and work it down low,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have to eliminate those three guys — Brennen Dubchak (48, 33-42-75, 37), Brandon Janke (50, 26-41-67, 35) and Corbin Bean (49, 28-39-67, 21) — who make a difference for their team.
“If we can apply pressure to them so that they don’t have any time and space then we can help our chances of winning this game.”
The Eskimos have won four of their seven meetings with the Rivermen this season, including the last three.
“The difference in those last three games is that we applied pressure,” Gagne said.
“We applied pressure on their defence and if we can maintain that pressure, what I call playing 200 feet from your own net, then that is a great defence.
“We need to keep it (the puck) in deep, not give them any turnovers and get some shots on net.
“We need to exploit their goalies — William King (2 wins, 2.66 goals against average, .912 save percentage) and Marc Terriault (11 wins, 3.78 goals against average, .889 save percentage) — and we have in the past.
“We need to keep moving the puck forward and play in the offensive zone. That way their offence is 200 feet from our net. It’s what I call winning hockey.”
Another key for the Eskimos on Saturday night will be staying out of the penalty box.
“We are going to have to maintain our composure,” Gagne said.
“They (Espanola’s Big 3) do get a lot of points on the power play and they take advantage of it. They are talented individuals.
“By not giving them too many power plays, it is an advantage for us.”
There has been little to separate the Eskimos and the Rivermen so far this season.
“They are a good team, obviously, because we are only one point apart,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have our hands full, but we have to play Eskimos hockey.
“It is going to be playoff hockey, that’s what it is. It is going to be a fast-paced game. We have two good hockey clubs whose objective is to finish in third place.”
Continuing their recent dominance of the Rivermen might be a little more difficult given that the Eskimos will have a few key players out of the lineup again on Saturday.
Star forward Brady Clouthier will likely be watching from the press box on Saturday as he continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms sustained while taking a bone-jarring hit from Zachary Shankar during a game at the Jus Jordan Arena on Feb. 18.
Clouthier has had the stitches that were necessary to close facial cuts removed, but is still a ways away from being able to practice.
Forward Landon Hiebert, who had to be helped off the ice during last Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Soo Thunderbirds and defenceman Steven Pettite will both miss the Espanola game because of lower-body injuries.
Goalie Brody Wagner, who has missed a couple of games due to a fractured bone in his foot, has practised this week and is expected to return to the lineup Saturday night.
The Eskimos have employed a couple of affiliate players in practice this week, but not decision has been made yet on whether either will play in any of the upcoming games.
Regardless of which team finishes third, both the Eskimos and the Rivermen will have home-ice advantage during the first round of the playoffs.
“In hockey, you play to win,” Gagne said.
“Does it matter who we play (in the playoffs)? It really doesn’t matter. You would like to finish in third, or second, or first.
“Your objective is always to win every hockey game. It is just a matter of being content with having a good regular season, either or, finishing third or fourth, it’s not a bad season.
“There is a bit of pride there, however, that we are a good hockey club, so why not play to win and that is what we have been doing.”
Gagne admits there could be a bit of a psychological advantage to finishing third, instead of fourth.
“Being the third-best team in the league sounds better than being the fourth-best team in the league,” he said.
“We are gearing up to reach an objective and right now that is what it is.
“It sounds like a cliche, and it is, but all we can do is look after our house and take care of what we are going with our program.”
Eskimos — Espanola (March 1), @ Kirkland Lake (March 2), Kirkland Lake (March 3), North Bay (March 8)
Rivermen — Kirkand Lake (Feb. 28), @ Eskimos (March 1), @ North Bay (March 2), @ Sudbury (March 5), Sudbury (March 7) Kirkland Lake (March 9)