COCHRANE - The Abitibi Eskimos will be looking to continue their string of success at the Tim Horton Event Centre Thursday night, while the Crunch will be looking to put the “home” in home-ice advantage.
“The key is going to be the boys feeding off the energy of the home crowd,” said Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard.
“Hopefully, they will be a lot louder than usual and be more involved in the game. That is going to be the key, having the backing behind us.
“Our rink is a little unique compared to the Jus Jordan Arena (current home of the Eskimos). In Iroquois Falls the fans are right behind you and they are across from you. It is a loud place all the time.
“After being in Game 7 last year in Iroquois Falls (when the Crunch were known as the Elliot Lake Bobcats) we didn’t want to be a team playing in Game 7 in Iroquois Falls this year, with 300 hecklers behind you and all that kind of fun stuff.”
By snapping their five-game losing streak and winning their final two games of the regular season, the Crunch avoided that fate.
“Having the home-ice advantage we get to play in the friendly confines of the Tim Horton Event Centre,” Leonard said.
“We don’t have to worry about the sixth man being a factor against us in key situations of a game.”
It remains to be seen just how friendly the confines of the Tim Horton Event Centre will be, however, as the Crunch struggled there at times during the regular season.
The Eskimos, in fact, won three of the five games the two teams played at the Tim Horton Event Centre during the 2014-15 campaign, while the Crunch did the same at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne knows his squad will have its work cut out for it in the series, but he is confident they can knock off the Crunch.
“The team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win this series,” he said.
“We are going to try to put the puck behind their defence and get a good forecheck going and play tight defence.
“The kids know they have to play with fewer mistakes and at this time of year you see fewer and fewer mistakes, so that’s a bonus.
“Our compete level will be there and that should mean our chances of winning will be higher.”
On the weekend the Crunch returned to the run-and-gun style of hockey that led to much of their early season success, without compromising too much on the defensive side of the puck, according to Leonard.
“We scored 13 goals and we had five different goal scorers and none of them were Cody Gratton,” he said.
“(Henry) Berger scored two short-handed goals this weekend. (Daniel) Stagg got two goals in our last game and a goal on Friday night. (Dustin) Cordeiro really opened up this weekend.
“Those are guys we have been talking about in the paper for the last month, saying they haven’t really been coming to play and getting much done.
“All of our secondary scoring, even Aviv Milner, got a goal this weekend, which was nice to see.”
Gratton, Cochrane’s leading scorer, served the final two-games of his six-game suspension on the weekend and is itching to get back into action.
“A guy like Gratton has got a lot of fire under his butt right now,” Leonard said.
“He was a little disappointed that when he scored 52 goals in a season he didn’t get recognized by any league awards.
“So, you are going to see a guy come out here on fire with a little something to prove.
“He was a little disappointed. Him and Dustin Cordeiro finished one-two in the league in goals and they didn’t get any recognition anywhere.
“You have two guys who are pretty angry and hungry to do something.
Gratton was selected to the NOJHL’s first all-star team at centre, while Cordeiro made the second all-star team on the wing.
“For Gratton, that means nothing,” Leonard said.
“He led the league all year in goals and points (until the final six games, which he missed due to suspension). He led the league in short-handed goals and game-winning goals and he didn’t get an award.
“Dustin is the same way. He is only 19 years old but he had 47 goals — double the goals he had last year — and he was not even considered for most improved or anything.
“Both guys are pretty discouraged. They feel lot of hard work this year went unrecognized.”
Hoisting the Copeland Cup high into the air at the end of the NOJHL playoffs would likely go a long way toward easing any pain either player is currently feeling.
Leonard is not about to start counting his chicken before they are hatched, however.
“Abitibi has got a great hockey club over there, with guys like (Brenden) Locke, who I think is one of the best players in the league, and Brady Clouthier, who can also score goals and play hard, guys like (Jake) Holland and (Tristan) Salesse, a couple of boys who don’t get enough recognition, either, and you have got Brennan Roy, who has had a pretty good season,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we respect them as an opponent. They have got a lot of good players. Between our two teams, we probably have four of the best overall players in the league.
“It is going to be a matter of who shows up and wants it more. With the two top lines, whichever plays better, there team is going to win.”
It would be hard to imagine two more evenly matched teams meeting in Game 1 of the best-of-seven NOJHL East Division semifinal series.
Both teams finished the 2014-15 regular season with 60 points, with the Crunch gaining home-ice advantage in the series on the basis of one more regular-season victory.
The 10-game regular-season series between the two squads saw them each finish with a record of 5-4-0-1.
In those 10 games, the Crunch outscored the Eskimos 53-45 — although that might be a little deceptive given 19-6 differential in favour of Cochrane in a pair of back-to-back victories early in the season.
The Eskimos won their final three games against the Crunch during the regular season, while Cochrane enjoyed a stretch where they won five of the six games the two teams played.
Part of the reason for that success was that the Eskimos were able to cut down on the number of goals they surrendered to the Crunch — a trend Gagne would like to see continue.
“Defence wins hockey games and I believe the better defence we play, the more opportunities we are going to create,” he said.
“That tends to force our opponents to make more mistakes.”
Shutting down a team like the Crunch who boast a 52-goal scorer in Gratton and a 47-goal scorer in Cordeiro will not be easy, of course.
“Their better players will definitely compete, so we are going to make sure we are aware when they are on the ice,” Gagne said.
“With playoff hockey there is a little bit more hitting. There is a little bit more intensity.
“If we can shut them down and hopefully continue to play the way we have been playing, then we should be in good shape. That’s Eskimos’ hockey.”
The Eskimos will be without goaltender Logan Ferrington for the first five games of the series, as he serves the final portion of the six-game suspension he picked up for getting involved in a second fight during the same stoppage of play against the Sudbury Nickel Barons on March 6.
That means Chet Tooker will be carrying the ball for the Eskimos in Game 1 and beyond, with Iroquois Falls native Jaeden Giguere, who played for the GNML’s Timmins Majors this season, backing him up.
Leonard feels that shut give the Crunch an advantage, although he knows Tooker is capable of coming up big, as well.
“Look at the stats with Ferrington against us and with Tooker against us,” he said.
“The odds are in our favour. Tooker has beaten us once this year (in overtime) and Ferrington was 3-0-0-0 against us.
“The games where Abitibi beat us here, we outshot them by 15 or 20 shots. Ferrington was a pretty key guy in those games, making some pretty key saves.”
“Tooker has got the chance to step up and sometimes that can bite you in the butt, too. That is part of Junior ‘A’ hockey. Sometimes when people are given chances they run with it.”
The Crunch will counter with Brett Young.
“Young is our man,” Leonard said.
“Young has been our man since he got here. He has been consistent. He has been athletic. He has been eager. He has got a great attitude. He is our guy, 100%.
“The guys know he is our guy and he knows he is our guy.
“If he continues to play like he has since he has been here, we are going to be in fine shape.
“It is going to be a good series.”
Both the Crunch and the Eskimos are healthy heading into Game 1 of the series, with the suspended Ferrington being the only player who will not be available to either squad.