TIMMINS - There might be as many Gold Miners fans as Eskimos supporters in the stands of the McIntyre Arena Friday night when Abitibi hosts Kirkland Lake in the first of five NOJHL games to be played in Timmins this season.
“We better,” joked Gold Miners coach and general manager Marc Lafleur.
Goaltender Devon Debastos (60:00, 0.00, 1.000), defenceman Nick Hautanen (3, 0-0-0, 4) and forward Tyler Romain (3, 1-3-4, 2), all former Timmins Majors, will all play their first games on city ice wearing the blue, white and gold Kirkland Lake colours.
“Obviously we are going to have friends and families of those players. The more fans we can get, the better it is going to be for us.
“We know we are going in tough against Abitibi. They gave us a real tough go here last week and we expect the same. They are a good team. We hope that we are able to match their intensity and match their game on Friday night.”
The three local players in the Gold Miners lineup have all contributed to the team’s early success.
“The are playing great for us,” Lafleur said.
“Those guys are definitely contributing. We are counting on them to contribute to our success this year.”
The Eskimos lineup features veteran defencemen Kevin Walker (3, 0-2-2, 8) and Ryan Kerr (3, 1-2-3, 4), as well as rookie forward Kyle Levis (2, 0-1-1, 9).
While Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased with the way the Eskimos player in Kirkland Lake on Sept. 10, with the exception of a 12-minute stretch in the second period, the game plan Friday night will be slightly different.
“Playing at the Mac, there is no neutral zone, whatsoever,” he said.
“So we are going to have to change a little bit of our style, maybe be a little bit more aggressive and play more in the offensive zone more, instead of sitting back and doing a lot of trapping.
“The neurtral zone is so small that if they just make one pass within 1.5 seconds it is in the offensive zone, so we are going to have to do some adjustments and get a few more shots on net.
“And we are going to have to play tighter defence, something we are going to work on this week.”
The Eskimos offence should get a boost from the return of forward Brenden Locke (1, 1-0-1, 5), who missed the past two games while serving a suspension.
In addition, defenceman Nick Minerva should make his debut against the Gold Miners Friday night.
Forward Ryan Tront and Dalton Bruce and defenceman Michael Rancourt (2, 0-0-0, 0), however, will remain out of the lineup due to injuries.
“Tront is still a week, or two, away, Rancourt is still a week away, Bruce is getting closer, he just needs to get approval from his doctor,” Gagne said.
“Again, we are going to be short. We are going to have to have a defenceman playing forward, for now.”
Bruce has been practising with the Eskimos for more than a week now.
Chet Tooker (186:54, 3.53, .913) has played every minute of every regular season game for the Eskimos so far and that may, or may not change this weekend.
“I wanted to go with (Braddock) Baalerud this weekend, but he is 17 years old and I don’t know if it affected him, signing with a junior team, but he needs to really work hard in practice,” Gagne said.
“Sometimes what you do in practice pays off in the games. He knows it. He just has to step it up a little bit more in practice, work had and do the right things … stop the puck and work on his game.
“If he does that this week, I would like to see him in a game this weekend. We have total confidence in him, but he just needs to get these working habits of junior hockey, I guess you could call it.”
The desire to get Baalerud into a game is in no way a suggestion that Tooker has struggled so far this season.
Far from it, in fact.
“We are happy with Chet,” Gagne said.
“Like we said, he is a little unorthodox, but he stops the puck. He worked on his rebounds last game and he was better with his rebounds.
“He works hard in practice. We have been pretty happy with him, for sure and I think he has been pretty happy, as well.”
The Gold Miners have allowed just one goal in three regular season games, by far the best defensive record in the NOJHL.
“We are happy, but there are still a few things we have to touch up defensively,” Lafleur said.
“We know where the scoring chances are coming from, so we are trying to eliminate those, as much as possible.
“The one goal against (scored by Eskimos defenceman Ryan Kerr during a game in Kirkland Lake Sept. 10), was scored on a five-on-three and those are always tough to defend.”
Goalies Kenny Fitzgerald and Debastos have clearly been solid in the Gold Miners’ net, but defence is a team game.
“It has been a team effort,” Lafleur said.
“The goaltending has been really solid. Although we are not giving up many chances against, the chances against are coming from dangerous areas.
“So, we not only have to try to limit the chances against, but also the severity of them.”
While a stat like one goal against in three games tends to generate headlines, it should be noted that the Gold Miners have proven they can score goals as well, averaging almost seven a game.
Veteran forward Steven Babin (3, 1-7-8, 4) leads the NOJHL in scoring, but he is just one of many offensive weapons the Gold Miners have to choose from.
“We worked hard at recruiting over the summer, but like I tell my players, if they want to be good offensively, they have to be good defensively,” Lafleur said.
“The only way you can score is to have the puck and the only way to have the puck is to be good defensively. It is one and the same. It is a chain reaction between how we play defence and how it contributes offensively.”