COCHRANE - The Abitibi Eskimos held the Crunch’s No. 1 line off the scoresheet during Game 1 of their best-of-seven NOJHL East Division semifinal series Thursday night.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Cochrane’s No. 2 line of Dustin Cordeiro, Henry Berger and Aviv Milner lit up the Tim Horton Event Centre like a Christmas tree en route to a 5-2 victory.
Cordeiro, who netted 47 goals during the regular season, scored three goals and added a pair of assists, while Berger scored twice and added an assist and Milner chipped in with three assists.
“I have been here for three years (two as a Bobcat in Elliot Lake and one with the Crunch in Cochrane) and we have always lost the first game,” Cordeiro said.
“So hopefully we can change things around this year now that we have gotten our first win.
“We played really well tonight. We hit hard. We battled them and we finished on our opportunities.
“Our line, as a whole, played great tonight. We were passing and working hard.
“Now we have to keep it going through the rest of the series.”
Cordeiro gave fans a scare in the third period when he collapsed in front of his team’s net after being on the receiving end of a knee-on-knee hit that saw Eskimos forward Brennan Roy banished to the penalty box.
He was able to return soon after being helped off the ice, however, unlike Crunch defenceman Connor Lovie who suffered a lower-body injury on the same play.
“Last year’s series was physical,” Cordeiro said.
“The year before that was physical. This year, things are even more physical because of the Highway 11 rivalry.”
You could even argue that there was more hitting in Thursday night’s game than all 10 regular-season meetings combined.
Cordeiro doesn’t care if the Crunch win the series 4-0 or if it goes the full seven games.
“As long as we get out of the first round, I don’t care what it takes,” he said.
“If we can get out of the first round, we will have that monkey off our back.”
Cochrane’s top unit — comprised of 52-goal sniper Cody Gratton, Josh Racek and Daniel Stagg — was held in check, for the most part, by the Eskimos although Gratton did have four clear-cut breakaways.
Eskimos goalie Chet Tooker turned each of them aside, however, perhaps in part because of the rust Gratton accumulated by missing the final six games of the regular season while serving a suspension.
It appeared Thursday night’s game might be a rout, as the Crunch built up a 3-0 advantage in the first 10-and-a-half minutes of the first period on a pair of even-strength Cordeiro goals and a short-handed marker from Berger.
Eskimos assistant coach and general manager Dan Dube realizes that his team can’t afford to continually play catch-up hockey against the Crunch.
“We came out a little flat-footed there and they got three quick goals,” he said.
“It is a long series though and it takes four victories to win it.
“That is the message we gave to the players in the dressing room.
“You are allowed to have a bad game and tonight was a bad game for us.”
Early on, the Eskimos had difficulty sticking to their game plan of trying to get the puck in deep and forcing the Crunch defenders to turn and chase it.
“We made way too many turnovers,” Dube said.
“They (the Crunch) come at you hard. They have tons of speed up front.
They played a really good game tonight. They were excited to play in front of their home crowd.”
The Eskimos were able to slow Cochrane’s momentum, giving them a chance to get back into the hockey game.
“Chet made a couple of big saves and our guys got a little momentum front that,” Dube said.
“After he made those saves we heard it from the bench, ‘good job, we are only three shots away,’ then we got one to make it a 3-1 hockey game.”
Eskimos rookie Kyle Levis surprised Crunch goalie Brett Young with a snap shot, to cut the home side’s lead to two goals heading into the dressing room for the first intermission.
An even-strength goal from Roy 29 seconds into the second period pulled the Eskimos to within one goal and produced a few anxious moments for Crunch fans.
Cochrane didn’t panic, however, and Cordeiro’s third goal of the game midway through the period provided the Crunch with a little bit of breathing room and made the score 4-2.
Berger netted a power-play goal midway through the final period to make the final score 5-2.
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard was pleased with his team’s play Thursday night.
“We played hard from start to finish,” he said.
“We played well defensively. We didn’t give up any breakaways and we didn’t give up any two-on-one rushes.
“We created a lot of offence, but at the same time we picked and chose when we were going to take off on them. I think that messed them up a bit on their back end. They weren’t sure if we were going to stay back and do the passing play game or take off. It worked well. We got two goals off of it.
“I am really happy with how everybody stuck together and how we worked hard.
“We went through a lot of adversity tonight. We got a four-minute penalty against us and a five-minute major penalty against us.
“Our guys battled adversity from start to finish tonight and I have to give them credit.”
The Crunch were strong in their own zone, limiting the Eskimos to shots from the perimeter for the most part.
“We blocked a lot of shots tonight,” Leonard said.
“That’s what playoff hockey is all about. You have to dig down a little deeper and show a little more heart.”
Young made 37 saves to earn the victory for the Crunch, while the Eskimos Tooker turned aside 36 shots and was tagged with the loss.
What do the Eskimos have to do differently Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena if they hope to turn this series around?
Dube said: “It is just a matter of doing the things that we did to have success in the last three regular-season games against them. We have to play program, get pucks deep and make sure we don’t turn the puck over. If we turn the puck over, their transition game comes at you at 100 miles per hour.”
NOJHL NOTES — The start of Thursday night’s game was delayed a half hour as officials at the Tim Horton Event Centre had to replace a pane of glass behind the Crunch net that was shattered by a shot during the warm-ups … Milner was ejected from the game late in the third period after picking up a five-minute major penalty for head contact … Game 2 of the series will be played Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls. The series will then return to the Tim Horton Event Centre for Game 3 on Monday night … The Crunch went 1-4 on the power play, while the Eskimos were 0-7 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Tim Horton Event Centre was 510 … Thursday night’s other NOJHL playoff game saw the Soo Thunderbirds blank the Blind River Beavers 11-0.