IROQUOIS FALLS - For the second time in the playoffs the Abitibi Eskimos find themselves on the brink of elimination.
Eskimos killer Eric Hillock’s goal 1:19 into the first overtime period lifted the Soo Thunderbirds to a 2-1 victory over Abitibi Wednesday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
The victory gives the Thunderbirds a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven NOJHL semi-final series, with Game 4 set for the Jus Jordan Arena Thursday night.
The Eskimos had been 16 seconds away from a 1-0 victory in Game 3 Wednesday night before Tyler Jones’ shot floated high over the shoulder of Eskimos goalie Brody Wagner to stun the 533 fans in attendance and send the game to overtime.
“It just came down to a couple of lucky bounces that went their way,” Wagner said.
“The first goal went off I don’t know how many people and ended up changing directions a couple of times.
“And then on the last one I was going to cover it and the kid poked it right out in front and I don’t even know what it went off of. It was tough, two goals there at the end, but we will battle back.”
Up until the final 16 seconds of regulation, Wagner looked unbeatable making 35 of his 36 saves to keep the game scoreless until defenceman Steven Pettite was able to give the home side a 1-0 lead 8:41 into the third period.
Thunderbirds coach Jordan Smith was impressed with the play of both teams Wednesday night.
“Tonight was probably one of the best games I have been a part of, as a player or as a coach, hands down,” he said.
“We are a resilient group. We have been in these games all season and that was the absolute message going into the third period, to stick with it. We figured we would get rewarded if we just kept working. I don’t know if we would have gotten that bounce if we had a couple of passengers.
“We are real proud of the way the guys handled themselves. I thought we showed a lot of character and I couldn’t be happier right now.”
The Thunderbirds carried the momentum they built up by tying the game late in the third period into the overtime frame.
“We thought we played a strong game for 60 minutes,” Smith said.
“We just weren’t rewarded. We had a couple of point-blank chances, but you have to give Brody Wagner credit. He played an outstanding game, but our message was consistent throughout the entire game: Stick with the plan and keep working and eventually it paid off for us.”
The Thunderbirds coach realizes just how important it was for his team to win Game 3 and not let the Eskimos gain any momentum in the series.
“We knew this was a huge game and we didn’t want to give them any momentum, really,” Smith said.
“Like I said earlier, I thought it was a great hockey game. The fans definitely got treated to a great hockey game.”
Thunderbirds goalie Brian Kment ran his record in the playoffs to 7-0 and once again earned the praise of his coach.
“Especially in the first period, he made a couple of point-blank saves and he definitely went save for save with Wagner,” Smith said.
“He is looking a lot more comfortable in there. He is looking confident and I am real happy for him.”
Kment breathed a sigh of relief when Jones’ game-tying goal went in.
“It was amazing to get that tying goal,” he said.
“We worked hard the entire game and finally something paid off for us. It was just an unbelievable feeling.”
The Thunderbirds goalie said there is no real secret to why he has been playing so well in the playoffs.
“I just get focused before every game and I just leave everything on the ice and play as best as I can every night. Luckily for me, everything has been turning out good.”
It seems like Kment has been stopping everything he can see.
“(Pettite’s goal) was a deflection,” he said.
“It deflected off one of the players on our team. I saw it at first, but then it changed direction. I tried my best to stop it, but I didn’t really have much of a chance on that one.”
Eskimos assistant coach Dan Dube admitted Wednesday’s loss was pretty deflating for the home side.
“That was a tough loss for these guys,” he said.
“I thought we competed well and we had a 100% better effort that we had in the Soo.
“We were ready for this one. We followed the game plan from the first puck drop and then with 16 seconds left a shot hit a couple of legs and went in, then that one in overtime, but I am really happy with the way the guys played. We competed well.
“It was a great hockey game that we witnessed tonight.”
Even though they lost the game, there were a lot of positives that the Eskimos can take out of Game 3.
“We got a lot of shots on net and we have been emphasizing that,” Dube said.
“We stayed out of the penalty box, we stayed disciplined, we moved our feet, we got the puck down deep.”
While the Eskimos were down following Wednesday’s loss, Dube is not about to concede the series just yet.
“It is no secret that it takes four games to win a series, so it’s not over yet,” he said.
“We have been watching what has been happening in major junior hockey right now with Kingston going up 3-0 and we all know it takes four games to win.
“The guys are going to be prepared to go tomorrow in front of this home crowd and they really get momentum off the crowd. They are going to be ready tomorrow, but it is not going to be easy. We are going to have to compete again tomorrow and put on a good show for the fans.
The Eskimos were 0-4 on the power play, while the Thunderbirds were 0-3 with the man advantage.
Game time for Thursday’s contest at the Jus Jordan Arena is 7:30 p.m.