IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos were 40 seconds away from heading to Elliot Lake with a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven NOJHL quarter-final series against the Bobcats Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
Bobcats forward Dustin Cordeiro had other ideas, however, and he drilled a wrist shot past Eskimos goalie Brody Wagner to send the game to overtime tied 4-4.
And it took his Bobcats teammate Mike Gambino just 3:28 of the extra frame to silence the home crowd and deadlock the series at 1-1 heading to Game 3 on Thursday night in Elliot Lake.
The Bobcats were so excited that every member of the team jumped onto the ice to celebrate Gambino’s heroics.
The Eskimos players on the ice took exception to the excessive festivities and a brawl ensued, ensuring that the rivalry will be even more hotly contested when the puck drops at the Centennial Arena.
Gambino, Ned Simpson and Bryan McFarlane of the Bobcats each received five minutes for fighting and game misconducts, while Austin Bissonnette received a double-minor for roughing.
Kealey Cummings of the Eskimos received a minor for instigating, five minutes for fighting and a game misconduct. Bryce Robert and Ryan Wildman each got five minutes for fighting and game misconducts, while Zach Innes and Erik Robichaud each received a double-minor for roughing.
“It is a situation where their coach didn’t have control of their bench,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“They all jumped on the ice and we all know it is illegal. You can’t be doing that and one of our players approached theirs and gave him a cross check and then that escalated. So it doesn’t look good for them for leaving the bench, so I am pretty sure they will get the worst of it.”
Bobcats coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard declined to comment on the incident, noting that the referees were still writing up their report.
Leonard was pleased to see his team get a victory in Iroquois Falls and steal the home ice advantage away from the Eskimos.
“We played hard all night and we fired a lot of shots on net,” he said.
“We had a lot of good chances. We had a bit of a lull there, with a couple of bad breaks, but we battled back right up until the last minute, pulled our goalie, got the tying goal and then in overtime we out shot them 6-0. They didn’t get a shot on goal and we came at them hard, so it was nice. We deserved it.”
The Bobcats big guns — Cordeiro and Brett Wagner — came through with solid efforts in Game 2.
“They stepped up big time and our defence played well,” Leonard said.
“We were using one of our best defencemen (McFarlane) as a forward right now to try and get a little more offensive punch up front because Wagner is not 100%, but he still played pretty good … two goals tonight.”
Wagner missed Game 1 of the series with a lower-body injury, but he had a big impact on Game 2.
“I was just trying to work hard,” he said, while soaking his injured ankle following the game.
“It is still a little sore, but I am going to ice it and be ready to go next week.
“We took it to them in the first two periods, but got a little lackadaisical in the third period. We fought back though and got a gutsy win.”
The Bobcats didn’t have any passengers Saturday night.
“Overall, it was a great team effort,” Leonard said.
“We rolled our lines tonight and the D played well and our goalie played well. We got a well-deserved win tonight.”
Gagne was frustrated at how the Eskimos lost Saturday night’s game.
“It was just an easy play,” he said.
“All we had to do was get it off the glass and out, but it didn’t go out, and then prior to that, on the same shift, we had the puck 10 feet from the blue line and we never got it out. We never got it out three times in a row. It is unfortunate, but it is the name of the game. All you have to do is get it out, especially when we have the lead. We didn’t execute and it came back and bit us.”
On the winning goal, Gambino was allowed to carry the puck out from behind the net, skate around into the slot before he riffled his shot past Wagner.
“One assignment wasn’t done,” Gagne said.
“Our player was just looking at him and let him take off and then shoot. There is no reason for that.
The Eskimos, coming off a big 2-1 win on home ice in Game 1, were not able to carry any momentum into Game 2 and looked flat in the first half of the game.
“We weren’t skating, we didn’t have any jump,” Gagne said.
“It was almost like we were a step behind. We were entering the offensive zone, we were taking shots and we had a couple of players gliding to the net instead of just jumping on the puck and protecting that puck.
“In the first period it was maybe only the last seven minutes that we played some hockey.”
Wagner got the Bobcats on the board first when he beat Wagner to make it a 1-0 hockey game.
The Eskimos were able to get back on even terms before the end of the period, however, as Landon Hiebert got one past Bobcats goalie Alex Bitsakis.
The Bobcats owned the second period and got goals from McFarlane on the power play and Wagner short handed to built a 3-1 lead.
Ryan Tront scored a pair of goals — the first coming on the power play 39 seconds into the final period and the second off a face off — to get the Eskimos back on even terms and then Erik Robichaud put the home side in front with less than five minutes to play in the period.
The line of Tront, Brenden Locke and Hiebert was one of the Eskimos most effective Saturday night.
“We just found each other out there,” Tront said.
“We were always looking for each other. We were getting the pucks in deep and once we got down low we were just moving it around and the chances came and we just put the puck in the back of the net.
On his second goal, Tront shot the puck instead of trying to draw it back to a teammate and the move surprised Bitsakis.
“I have done it before in minor hockey, but this is the first time I have done it in junior hockey,” he said.
“It was pretty exciting to get that tying goal and get the team back in the game.
“It was big to do that in front of our fans on home ice, to come back from that two-goal deficit and grab the lead. It gave a lot of momentum to the guys on the bench, we really thought we had it but once defensive breakdown in our end and they put the puck in the back of the net.
“It was a tie game right there and we found ourselves going into overtime.”
Tront is confident the Eskimos can put the disappointment of the Game 2 loss behind them.
“We are going to have a couple of good practices here this week and get the boys going,” he said.
“I think we will be really ready to go for Thursday and Friday. We are going to come out flying and we are going to want these next two games after the way this one finished. I know we are going to be coming out hard.”
Gagne was a lot happier with the Eskimos play in the third period than he had been in the second.
“We got our legs back and our little mojo back, I guess you could call it, for the third period,” he said.
“It should have been our game, but they won the game and the series is tied 1-1.”
The Eskimos lost captain Kevin Walker when he was ejected for a hit to the head early in the second period, marking the second-straight game the Eskimos have lost a defenceman for a similar infraction. Jamey Lauzon, ejected from Game 1, on Friday night received a two-game suspension for his actions.
“We were hurting back there again tonight, especially after losing two defencemen, two good hockey players, that really hurts,” Gagne said.
“We are just going to have to make do with what we have. We have no other choice and the players we have are going to have to step up and make a difference.”
Bitsakis made 31 saves while recording the win for the Bobcats, while Wagner turned aside 40 shots while suffering the loss for the Eskimos.