IROQUOIS FALLS – The Abitibi Eskimos had the NOJHL-leading Soo Thunderbirds right where they wanted them Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena, holding a 3-1 lead seven minutes into the second period of play.
That’s when the wheels flew off, however, as the Thunderbirds shoot off a slow start and soared to a 10-6 victory.
“We were up 3-1 and I think we had played a good game,” said Eskimos forward Ryan Tront.
“Then I think it was just a defensive collapse on our part. We kind of left our goalie out to dry.
“He played probably his best game of the season, I think.
“It was mostly just miscommunication by our guys. There were so many opportunities. I don’t think they should have beaten us. Six goals is plenty enough goals to beat the second-place team in Canada. They are the first place team in Ontario.
“We really should have just kept our stuff together out there.”
Eskimos coach and GM Paul Gagne was far from pleased with his team’s effort in front of the home-town fans.
“The first minute and a half of the third period I don’t think we came prepared,” he said.
“I don’t know what happened, but we were a little laxidasical and the two chances they got they scored.
“It was not a good game. We had seven defencemen rolling tonight and three really played well and the other four had a hard time. It’s unfortunate. Sometimes you get one player who is having his ‘B’ game, or whatever you call it, but we had four defencemen tonight who didn’t bring their ‘A’ game at all.
It wasn’t just the forwards who struggled in the Eskimos end, however.
“They (backchecking forwards) were not up to par,” Gagne said. “There was a lack of concentration, lack of commitment defensively.
“What can you do? You can’t bench them all.”
Goals by Ryan Wildman, Philip Sweeney and Aaron Kerr, counter by a goal from Thunderbird Joseph Miller had staked the home side to its 3-1 advantage.
Goals by Michael Carusso and Anthony Miller, just over three minutes apart, got the visitors back on even terms.
Defenceman Corey Dubbeldam’s power-play goal put the Eskimos back in front 4-3 just over a minute after Miler had tied the score.
Matthew Zalewski and Yan Kalashnikov scored goals just over three minutes apart, putting the Thunderbirds in front for the first time in the game, 5-4.
Wildman’s second goal of the game, a power-play marker with 13 seconds to play in the second period got the Eskimos back on even terms, 5-5, heading into the second intermission.
The Thunderbirds pounced on the Eskimos early in the final frame, as Zalewski scored his second of the night 48 seconds into the period.
Gregory Sartoretto scored 20 seconds later to make it 7-5 for the Soo and Kalashnikov got his second of the night before the five-minute mark of the final period to increase the lead to 8-5.
Eskimos starting goaltender Jackson Winkler, who made a number of unbelievable saves in the game, was lifter a few minutes later, with Jeremy Laux coming on to get his first taste of NOJHL action.
Eskimos fans were given a glimmer of hope when Kevin Walker scored a power-play goal to cut the lead to 8-6.
That would be as close as the Eskimos would come, however, to getting back on even terms, as Sartoretto scored his second of the night and Zalewski completed his hattrick to make the final score 10-6 in favour the Thunderbirds.
“I think, over all, our defensive effort wasn’t good enough,” said Eskimos forward Nick Fountain.
“When you are playing a top team in the league like that you have got to be responsible defensively and, as a team, we have just got to focus on that a bit more.”
Fountain who has played four games with the Eskimos now has had a chance to see the Thunderbirds in action twice once in their building and on Saturday night.
“They are a good team, you know, you have got to respect that , but you can’t give them too much respect,” he said.
“Instead of defending, you have got to attack.
“You have got to always be aware and be on the top of your game when you are playing a team like that.”
There is no secret to what the Eskimos have to do to beat the Thunderbirds.
“We just have to play a full 60 minutes at both ends of the rink and just be ready to play and focus defensively,” Fountain said.
Soo goaltender Joel Horodziejczyk stopped 35 of the 41 shots the Eskimos fired in his direction, while Winkler blocked 37 of the 45 shot he faced in 45:50. Laux stopped nine of the 11 shots he faced in the 14:10 he played in the third period.
The Eskimos will not have to wait long to redeem themselves, as they travel to Kirkland Lake for a game against the Gold Miners on Sunday night.
“We had a little talk after the game and, yes, we are going to lick our wounds right now and we are going to go 20 minutes, or a half hour and think about it and I believe they are even having a little meeting in there and they are going to be ready to play hockey tomorrow.
Saturday night’s set back followed a stretch in which the Eskimos won four of five games.
“We have been playing pretty good hockey and I have to give our players credit,” Gagne said.
ESKIMOS NOTES: The Eskimos lineup got a boost Saturday night with the return of forward Peter Poulin-Roy. Poulin-Roy played in his fourth OHL game with the Sudbury Wolves on Friday night and had been expected to make a two-game road trip with Sudbury on Saturday and Sunday. He was returned to the Eskimos, however. The Sudbury native likely will not be in the lineup for Sunday night’s game in Kirkland Lake and Wednesday night’s game in Sudbury, as he received a 10-minutes misconduct and a game misconduct in the second period Saturday night … The Thunderbirds were coming off a 2-0 loss in Kirkland Lake on Friday night. Chris Komma picked up the shutout for the Gold Miners, while former Eskimo Dustin Jesseau earned an assist on the second Kirkland Lake goal … Saturday night’s other NOJHL game saw the Sudbury Nickel Barons travel to Blind River and skate off with a 5-2 win over the Beavers.