Second-place showdown brewing

There will be plenty riding on the outcome of Friday night’s Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League game at the Archie Dillon Sportsplex.   Depending on the outcome of  Thursday’s game in North Bay between the Trappers and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, North Bay and the Abitibi Eskimos could be tied in the standings.   The Eskimos currently hold a two-point advantage, but North Bayhas one game in hand — the game against Kirkland Lake Thursday.   After Friday’s contest, which Abitibi coach and general manager Paul Gagne describes as a “playoff” game, each team will have two games remaining in the regular season.   The Eskimos will host the Soo Thunderbirds at the Jus Jordan Arena on Saturday night before travelling to Kirkland Lake on Tuesday for a clash with the Gold Miners.   The Trappers, meanwhile, will host the Thunderbirds on Sunday night before travelling to Sudbury for a game against the division-leading, but suddenly struggling Cubs.   Should the Eskimos win all three of their remaining games and the Cubs lose all three of theirs, Abitibi could actually catch Sudburyfor first place in the division.   Gagne, like most good coaches, does not like to look too far ahead, of course.   “We are looking at maintaining second place,” he said. “That’s what we plan on doing.   “They (North Bay) have been playing well, as of late, and we just finished off a nice little weekend.”   That weekend saw the Eskimos return home from a three-game road trip through Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Blind River and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with four of a possible six points.   Normally, that kind of stretch would have opened up a little bit of breathing room between the Eskimos and the Trappers, butNorth Bay has been feasting on Gold Miners.   They have defeated Kirkland Lake in their past two games, after dropping the first of  four in a row, to stay within two points of Abitibi heading into Thursday night.   “You have to prepare for the team you are playing against, obviously,” Gagne said. “But we have been playing some half-decent hockey and we have to take care of our program.   “When we take care of our assignment, the odds of winning are higher.   “We have to focus on our play, as well as the little things they do differently on the power play and the penalty kill, and make some adjustments and go from there.   “But the No. 1 priority is we have to play Eskimos hockey. That’s what it is.”   Given the playoff implications, Gagne is hoping to see a large crowd out to support the Eskimos for Friday’s game in Timmins and Saturday’s game inIroquoisFalls.   “Against North Bay, on Friday, especially, it’s going to be like a playoff game,” he said. Even though Friday’s contest is a home game, Gagne says there is nothing like playing in the friendly confines of the Jus Jordan Arena.   “We practice there three times a week and are on the ice for four out of seven, so we know all the bounces, the atmosphere and what not,” he said. “But playing in Timmins is not like a road game. You have the fans that are going to be cheering for you.”   The Eskimos should have a little bit more confidence when they host the Thunderbirds on Saturday night.   They were able to defeat the league leaders in Sault Ste. Marie during their recent three-game road trip.   “They are a tough team to play against, for sure,” Gagne said.   “It does help that we beat them, but we are going to keep the players grounded.”   The Eskimos will be relatively healthy heading into Friday night’s contest.   Winger Chris Gartner remains sidelined with a concussion.   The only other injury of significance is defenceman Kealey Cummings, who for the third time this season has been felled by a shoulder injury.   “He had been practicing for two weeks with us and had the green light from the doctor,” Gagne said.   “He was feeling fine and he got hit from behind on Friday in the Soo and he hit the boards in not the proper way.”   That was just Cummings second game in the lineup after returning from his second shoulder injury.   Remaining games ESKIMOS • Friday —North Bay(Archie Dillon Sportsplex); • Saturday — Soo Thunderbirds (Jus Jordan Arena); • Tuesday — at Kirkland Lake (Joe Mavrinac Community Complex). ••• TRAPPERS • Thursday —Kirkland Lake; • Friday — at Abitibi (Archie Dillon Sportsplex); • Sunday — Soo Thunderbirds; • Wednesday — at Sudbury.