TIMMINS – The Eskimos will need strong goaltending and dirty goals to get past the Thunderbirds in the first round.
Round 1 will begin Friday in Sault Ste Marie when the second-place Thunderbirds host the Abitibi Eskimos who finished in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League basement with only 14 wins through 48 games.
The last time the Eskimos failed to get at least 23 wins in a season was 2001-02 when they registered only 14 victories.
The Soo has owned the Eskimos this season, winning seven of eight meetings.
Their only loss to the Eskimos came back on Sept. 22 when Abitibi edged the Thunderbirds 5-4 in overtime at the Jus Jordan Arena.
“I know we haven’t won many times over the last 16 games, but over the last five or six games we’ve found some of our mojo again,” said Eskimos head coach and general manager Paul Gagne. “We are competing, we are playing a little better and just like last weekend, we have to put everything together. That’s what playoffs is all about.”
Take a pinch of solid goaltending, add a cup or two of defensive zone discipline and bake in the mindset of attacking the front of the net and you have a recipe for victory.
But it’s easier said then done, as the Thunderbirds boast two of the best goalies in the league.
Joel Horodziejczyk posted a goals against average of 2.38, while colleague Steven Dombrowski has averaged 2.52 goals a game.
“We have to get into the dirty area, which is five feet in front of the net,” said Gagne. “We have to get it in deep, drive to the net and go get those garbage goals. Shots from the outside and playing passive is something you can’t do.”
On the flipside, the Eskimos’ goaltending, which has allowed a league worst 258 goals, has to be better to overcome the potent attack of the Thunderbirds who have scored a league-best 223 goals during the regular season.
“We’re not a team that will score six or seven goals a game, so we can’t afford to be giving up many,” said Gagne. “The goaltenders have to step up and they know that.”
Both Jackson Winkler and Jeremy Laux have taken turns in the Eskimos net.
Winkler has seen the bulk of the action playing in 23 games, posting a record of 6-12 with a .877 save percentage, while allowing just over five goals a game.
Counterpart Laux has played in 18 games going 2-10 with an .851 save percentage and allowing less than six goals a game.
“In all playoffs, goaltending is a big key,” said Gagne. “Both have played well when they’re put into the lineup. I’m hoping in the playoffs, whoever starts the game, finishes it. We’re going to keep it tight and try to play as well defensively as we can.”
With that being said, Laux has gotten the nod to start Friday’s game.
The Eskimos lost a major scoring threat late last year when they traded former captain and fan-favourite Richard Therrien to the Nepean Raiders of the Canadian Junior Hockey League for defenceman Wyatt Trumbley, who has quietly amassed 10 points in 19 games since joining the club.
With the loss of Therrien, the Eskimos have had to find other ways to put pucks in the net.
Rookie Aaron Kerr has been a revelation for the club, as the 16-year-old has scored 22 goals in 46 games, while teammates Peter Poulin-Roy and former Porcupine Quills skater Ryan Wildman have recorded 16 and 15 markers respectively.
Role player Zach Innes has gone about his business as well, chipping in with 14 goals in 42 games.
“No matter how good you are, you’re bound to get some breaks when you’re five feet in front of the net,” said Gagne. “We have to work it in deep. If you can work it in deep, 200 ft. from your net, I think that’s a great defence. Playoff hockey is all about momentum.”
Game 1 of the best-of-seven series goes Friday in the Soo at 7 p.m., while Game 2 will be played the next day at 1:30 p.m.
The series will make its way to the Jus Jordan Arena for Game 3 on March 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Game 4 will go March 24 at 2 p.m.
Eskimos top scorers:
Peter Poulin-Roy 16-26-42 35GP
Ryan Wildman 15-26-41 31GP
Aaron Kerr 22-14-36 46GP
Thunderbirds top scorers
Darcy Casola 28-38-66 49GP
Adam Ritchie 28-33-61 38GP
Brandon Warmington 22-26-48 44GP