IROQUOIS FALLS - Brenden Locke scored three goals to lead the Abitibi Eskimos to a 6-3 victory over the Mattawa Blackhawks in their final regular-season game at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
Despite the victory, the Eskimos finish in third place in the East Division standings and they will open their best-of-seven semi-final series against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane on Thursday night.
While the Eskimos were disposing of the Blackhawks, the Crunch skated to a 7-4 win over the Voodoos in Powassan Saturday night — their second-straight win after snapping a five-game losing streak Friday night.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne is not about to lose any sleep over not having home-ice advantage for the upcoming series with the Crunch.
“Based on our last four or five games against them, does it matter? No, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Business-wise, it’s a big difference because you get the extra home game and you have your fans in the stands.
“Overall, though, it doesn’t really matter.”
Brady Clouthier picked up three assists for the Eskimos Saturday night against the Blackhawks, but it was not enough for him to overtake the Voodoos’ Steve Harland in the scoring race.
Harland, who earned two assists in the Voodoos 7-4 loss to the Crunch on Saturday night, finished the regular season with 95 points, while Clouthier ended the year with 93 points.
Saturday night the Eskimos stuck to their program and followed the game plan the coaches had set out for them.
“We were just trying to get it deep,” Gagne said.
“In the second period, I thought we committed a few too many turnovers, but the players were still working it in deep and every time we worked it in deep we ended up getting some opportunities, or good shots on net.
“It was a real playoff effort, meaning when we took shots on net guys were driving to the net and paying the price in front of the net.
“There were a lot of little scrimmages in front of the net, with rebounds. That is playoff hockey and you have to play that way.”
Locke’s first goal of the night and 39th of the season stake the Eskimos to a 1-0 lead 41 seconds into the first period.
The Blackhawks were able to get back on even terms less than a minute later, however, when Chris Bauman beat Eskimos goalie Chet Tooker with an unassisted goal.
Locke’s second goal of the game and 40th of the season restored the Eskimos one-goal lead at the 6:11 mark of the opening frame.
Again the Blackhawks were able to net the equalizer as Jimmy Philbin put one past Tooker about five minutes later.
Jake Holland, with his first of two goals on the night and 18th of the season, put the Eskimos in front once again though, as he beat Blackhawks goalie Joe Sheppard with less than five minutes to play in the period.
This time the Eskimos would not surrender the lead.
The two sides played a scoreless second period, but Locke’s third goal of the game and 41st of the year early in the third period increased the Eskimos’ lead to 4-2.
Defenceman Michael Rancourt then scored his second goal of the season to increase the home side’s advantage to 5-2.
The Blackhawks were able to get one of those goals back when Brett Ouderkirk scored a power-play goal with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
That goal did not provide the Blackhawks with any momentum, however.
Holland netted his second goal of the game and 19th on the season to close out the scoring and make the final 6-3 with less than two minutes remaining on the clock.
Gagne was again impressed with the play of Tooker, who will be carrying the ball for the Eskimos when the playoffs start, as well.
“This kid has so much character it is incredible,” he said.
“He never complained (when he was sitting for an extended stretch and Ferrington was getting the lion’s share of starts). He knew the situation. If the goalies are hot, they stay in the net.
“Chet had a streak like that himself prior to Ferrington joining the team.
“Then, when Ferrington came in, he sat and worked hard and I would have to say he was one of the players who competed the most, especially in practice.
“I am sure he was going nuts there for a while, but he never showed his emotions.
“Then, last night when he made those three big saves it just lifted his spirits. You could see it.
“Tonight, he was taking care of his rebounds. He was challenging.”
Tooker is just happy to be back in the crease and he has no plans of giving up his spot without a fight — figuratively, not literally.
“I wasn’t as prepared yesterday,” he said. “I went to the morning skate and got in some nice shots with the boys, just to make sure. You always have a gut feeling of when you are going to go in and I had it last night. I saw Loggy (Ferrington) run the red line and I was like ‘alright, time to go,’ and had fun with it.
“Today, I just had fun with it again.”
While the goalie fight in Friday’s game caught just about everybody at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex by surprise, Tooker had an idea of what was developing.
“I knew what was happening,” he said. “I have seen that before. It happens.”
Tooker knows it is tough to stay sharp when you are not getting a lot of playing time, but he did not look rusty either Friday night or Saturday night.
“It is all mental,” he said.
“You have got to stay strong mentally. It’s hard, but if the team is winning, why change it?
“I have got my opportunity now and I am going to run with it as long as I can.”
Tooker stopped 33 of the 36 shots the Blackhawks fired his way to pick up the win for the Eskimos, while Sheppard, who made 40 saves, was tagged with the loss for Mattawa.
Blackhawks coach Taureen White was not happy with his team’s effort Saturday night.
“I thought we were flat tonight,” he said.
“We are certainly not healthy right now and it is probably the worst time to be unhealthy.
“As the game continued tonight our numbers dwindled. We had a couple of guys go down. There was kind of a funny hit on Ouderkirk and (Justin) St. Germaine got a bit of an injury, too.
“As the game progressed, you could just see that we were wearing down. It was our fourth game in a week, all on the road. It wasn’t the best week to finish up the season.”
The Blackhawks will not have much chance to rest up, as they will begin their best-of-three quarterfinal series against the Voodoos in Powassan on Monday and then play Game 2 back home on Tuesday and, if necessary, Game 3 back in Powassan on Wednesday.
White was pleased with the play of Sheppard, who recently returned from the injury list, Saturday night and is also confident in Josh Horner who played well in the absence of the big Texan.
“Both of our goaltenders have been outstanding, especially in the second half of the season,” he said.
“Josh finally got an opportunity and he ran with it and Joe has been pretty solid throughout the whole year. Both are young men of great character.
“Even as flat as we were tonight, Joe was able to keep us in the game.”
ESKIMOS NOTES — Official attendance for the Eskimos final regular-season game at the Jus Jordan Arena was 594 … With Logan Ferrington serving the first game of the six-game suspension he picked up for his fight with Sudbury Nickel Barons goalie Kevin Labelle Friday night, Iroquois Falls native Jaeden Giguere backed up Tooker. Giguere played for the Timmins Majors, of the GNML, this season … Brennan Roy served the one-game suspension he received for being assessed an instigating penalty Friday night … Kyle Levis was a healthy scratch … The Eskimos went 0-2 on the power play, while the Blackhawks were 1-5 with the man advantage. Game 1 of the series between the Eskimos and the Crunch will be played at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane Thursday night, with Game 2 to be played at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls Saturday night.