ELLIOT LAKE - The Elliot Lake Bobcats are entering their best-of-seven NOJHL playoff series against the Abitibi Eskimos on a high note.
The Bobcats won five of their last seven regular-season games, including a 2-1 victory on home ice against the second-place Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
“We are coming into Abitibi on a bit of a high,” said Bobcats coach, general manager and owner Ryan Leonard.
“Our last seven regular-season games we really picked it up. We won five of those seven and also played the Soo Thunderbirds to a tight game on Sunday. It was a 6-4 game, but we were down 4-1 early and made a game of it, 5-4, before they got a late one at the end of the game.
“We were happy about that and also coming off a big win over Kirkland Lake on Friday night. It was probably one of the fastest Junior ‘A’ games I have been involved with. It was up and down and quick hockey.
“If the way we have been playing in the last seven games, during these past three weeks, is any indication, I like our chances.”
Leonard sees a lot of similarities between his Bobcats and the Eskimos.
“We similar team, we both have a lot of skill and speed,” he said.
“Both teams play pretty clean hockey.”
Those similarities could result in a playoff series that goes the distance.
“I think we are looking at a long series,” Leonard said.
“I think we are looking at a series that could go six, or seven games. I wouldn’t want to be the one saying who is going to win. I think it is going to be pretty close.”
While the Eskimos have a number of players returning to the lineup from the injury list to start the series, the Bobcats are in a little better health.
“We are coming in pretty healthy,” Leonard said.
“We did lose one of our top guys, (Brett) Wagner, but we are hoping he will be back for Friday.
“He had a bit of a freak accident on Sunday. He somehow went into the ice, into the boards, weird, and ended up getting a high ankle sprain.
“He is now down in Chicago getting some special therapy on his leg, but hopefully he will be back in time for the game Friday night.”
Wagner (56, 41-33-74, 4) was the Bobcats leading scorer during the regular season, but Leonard is confident Elliot Lake will have a balanced attack for the start of the playoffs.
“All year we have had to rely on Wagner and certain guys to score, but our last seven games that hasn’t been the case,” he said.
“He might have picked up two or three goals in those seven games, but Brad Holman (52, 8-25-33, 30), a 20-year-old veteran, has finally picked up the pace a lot. He has been in the league for three years, but the last three weeks alone, he has been piling up the points.
“Him and Jared Walker (44, 8-24-32, 22), they have been our top line. Our third line has been our top line the last three weeks. This last week alone, they picked up 12 points between the two of them, so they are really starting to fly.
“So right now we have one, two and three (lines) going and the fourth line chips in a goal every second game, or so.
“We are finally clicking on all of our lines. Before we were only clicking on two lines all the time, now we have three or four lines that you would have to watch close.”
The Bobcats first line features Wagner, along with Dustin Cordeiro (56, 23-27-50, 45) and Aaron Carmichael (55, 10-22-32, 28).
A trio of players picked up by trade — Mike Gambino (24, 6-9-15, 46), Torrin Grange (24, 5-9-14, 6) and Dylan Sakatch (31, 6-11-17, 40) — make up the Bobcats second line.
Holman and Walker are joined on the Bobcats third line by Eskimos killer Aviv Milner (55, 20-18-38, 20).
Milner had four goals and three assists in the Bobcats eight games against the Eskimos this season.
No Bobcat has been hotter in the past seven games than goaltender Alex Bitsakis (16-17-0, 3.40, .904, 0) who was named one of the NOJHL’s Three Stars of the Week for the final week of the regular season.
“People don’t give him enough credit with us being the fifth-place team, battling to stay in the middle all year,” Leonard said.
“I would say he is just as good as the rest of the goalies in the league. If you were to put him on the Soo Thunderbirds, or on the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners and he would probably be the best goalie in the league.
“He doesn’t get enough praise.”
The Bobcats also feature a pair of stud defencemen.
“In Bryan McFarlane (51, 10-23-33, 83) and Max Glashauser (56, 5-24-29, 50) we have two defencemen who got to represent our league at the Central Canada Cup,” Leonard said.
“They are both skilled guys. McFarlane is playing with a bunch of confidence. He just got a scholarship (University of Windsor), so he is playing on a bit of a high.
“And Max, who has, I am sure, been in the running for every award this year doesn’t get enough credit, either.
“He is a kid who does his job very well, plays a little bit physical but controls the ice well for us.”
The Bobcats captain, John Waghorne (51, 2-12-14, 37), is also a presence on the blue line.
“He is a stay-at-home defenceman who has really picked up his game the last three weeks,” Leonard said.
One of the keys for the Bobcats to be successful against the Eskimos during the playoffs will be to protect leads better than they did during the regular-season.
“Out of the six games we lost to them, we had a three-, or four-goal lead in I think five of the games and we ended up blowing the leads in the third period,” Leonard said.
“We have got to find a way to protect leads against Abitibi, but they are resilient. They don’t give up. They have a lot of heart and they are coached well by Paul Gagne, who keeps on them all game.”
There is no secret to what kind of hockey the Bobcats will have to play to win the series.
“Our hockey team has been a run-and-gun team all season,” Leonard said.
“We are going to have to get a lot of shots on goal. The more shots the better. You have got (Sylvain) Miron and (Brody) Wagner, it doesn’t matter who they put in net. They have probably got two of the best one-two goalie tandems in the league. We have out shot them in games this year. I know one game we out shot them 55-23 and Wagner stole the game for them outright here in Elliot Lake.
“So we are going to have to get a lot of pucks on net and we are going to have to get traffic in front of the net. That is the only way we are going to win the series, is to get a lot of pucks on net and traffic in front of it.”
The Bobcats, who will move to Cochrane and become the Crunch following the conclusion of the playoffs, will be arriving in Cochrane on Thursday. They will practice at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Friday morning at 10 a.m., play at the Jus Jordan Arena at 7:30 p.m., stay in Cochrane Friday night, have another pregame skate Saturday at 11 a.m. before heading to the Jus Jordan Arena for Game 2.
“We are getting a lot of emails and people are excited,” Leonard said.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few fans in Iroquois Falls catching the games. I know they are all excited. We have a page up now on Facebook and within three days we were over 700 hits and likes. That is 300 more than we had in Elliot Lake in 12 months. If that is any indication of how excited people are I think you are going to see a big contingency of fans over there to cheer on the boys and let them know they are already being supported, get the rivalry started a little early.”