IROQUOIS FALLS - It will be kind of interesting to see what kind of impact the Christmas break has had on the Abitibi Eskimos, one of the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League’s hottest teams prior to the holidays.
The Eskimos, staggered by the loss of top centre Erik Robichaud to the Sarnia Sting, welcomed the league-leading Soo Thunderbirds to the Jus Jordan Arena on Nov. 9.
With No. 2 centre Ryan Wildman on the shelf because of an injury, even the most loyal Eskimos fans were expecting the worst that night.
Somehow I had a gut feeling that the Eskimos would win, however, and I emailed Eskimos president Scott Marshall after I learned the news about Robichaud and Wildman on the Wednesday prior to the game to predict Abitibi would prevail 3-2 on the upcoming Saturday.
And that is exactly what happened, although I did not predict the game would be decided in overtime, and the Eskimos embarked on a streak that would see them win 10 of 14 games leading up to the Christmas break.
Now, the Thunderbirds are back in town and no doubt will be looking for a little bit of revenge.
And having won 12-straight games (prior to Friday night’s game in Kirkland Lake), the Thunderbirds are pretty hot themselves.
The Eskimos’ lineup that will face the Thunderbirds Saturday night has been bolstered by the return of Wildman from the injury list, as well as the addition of speedy winger Landon Hiebert.
And Robichaud, who was released by the Sting last month, has decided to rejoin the Eskimos — a welcome addition to a team that seams to be gaining more confidence with each outing.
Robichaud may be in the lineup Saturday night, if the necessary paperwork is completed on time.
Brady Clouthier, Ryan Tront, rookie Brenden Locke, Wildman, Shane Hiley, Andrew Green, Zach Innes and Hiebert give the Eskimos the makings of three strong lines, no matter how coach and general manager Paul Gagne chooses to mix and match them.
Marc Dube, Jacob Kenney and Ben Miller, who has left the team to concentrate on his studies, also played a key role in the Eskimos pre-holidays success.
The addition of puck stopper Brody Wagner has proven to be the perfect complement to rookie goaltender Sylvain Miron, who has rediscovered his game after being peppered with more rubber than a Goodyear factory early in the season.
On defence, the Eskimos have a nice mix of experience and youth.
Captain Kevin Walker, Kealey Cummings and Ryan Kerr anchor a blue line that has received a boost this season from the addition of 20-year-old Steven Pettite, as well as youngsters Jamey Lauzon and Brennan Roy.
Bryce Robert and Sheehan Moore have filled in on defence, when needed, and also taken regular shifts up front.
That kind of flexibility is important for any team that is going to be successful.
The 2013-14 edition of the Eskimos clearly has a lot of talent, but the key to its success has been the ability of those individuals to come together as a unit.
They are playing Eskimos hockey: Thinking defence first, staying patient and then capitalizing on the opportunities they are given. They are moving the puck quickly out of the defensive zone, putting pressure on the oppositions defence, forechecking and cycling the puck down low.
The only thing that is really missing from this edition of the Eskimos is a big, mean, nasty stay-at-home defenceman capable of delivering bone-jarring hits and striking fear into the hearts of opposition forwards who venture too close the Abitibi net.
Those kind of players are hard to come by, however, and I can’t really recall seeing any in the lineups of other NOJHL teams either.