T-Birds eliminate Eskimos

IROQUOIS FALLS - The Soo Thunderbirds completed their four-game sweep of the Abitibi Eskimos Thursday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.

Darcy Haines scored a goal and assisted on two others as the Thunderbirds defeated the Eskimos 5-1 to eliminate their hosts and earn a berth into the NOJHL finals against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.

NOJHL rookie of the year Owen Headrick, captain Gavin Burbach and Anthony Miller each added a goal and an assist for the winners, while Anthony Butorac scored once and Joey Miller added a pair of assists.

Landon Hiebert had the lone goal for the Eskimos, scored 32 seconds into the opening frame to give the home side a brief 1-0 lead.

“The first shot was a goal, I think, and it was a great shot by Hiebert,” said Thunderbirds coach Jordan Smith.

“There is not much you can do on a goal like that. It was just a great shot, top corner, but I was real happy with the way we didn’t panic and stuck with it.

“We came here on a mission to win two hockey games and we had a hard-fought game last night and tonight was no different,”

“We were real happy to get the job done here tonight.”

It could be argued that the Thunderbirds were a team of destiny, given that most of the bounces in Game 3 and Game 4 went their way.

“We like to think that the bounces we do get are the result of hard work,” Smith said.

“We like to think that we will eventually get rewarded for our hard work. Last night it took until 16 seconds were left in the hockey game to get a lucky bounce, but we didn’t panic, we didn’t fold our tents, we stuck with it for 60 minutes and found a way to win.”

Burbach’s short-handed goal got the Thunderbirds back on even terms before the end of the first period Thursday night.

Headrick’s power-play marker then put the Thunderbirds ahead for good in the second period.

“We were just working it around and I took a one-timer with a nice screen out in front,” Headrick said.

“The goalie couldn’t see it.”

Headrick, a 16-year-old defenceman, is the Thunderbirds’ leading scorer in the playoffs, with two goals and nine assists, good for 11 points.

“Our coach and a couple of the guys taught me a lot of stuff (in the regular season) and I am just trying to make the most of my opportunities,” he said.

Even though the Soo swept the Eskimos, Headrick felt they gave the Thunderbirds a tough battle.

“They played great,” he said.

“They came hard every game and battled hard. We just tried to stay calm and not let our lows be too low, or our highs be too high.”

Smith was impressed with the play of his young defenceman.

“Owen played a strong game,” he said.

“He scored that big goal that put us ahead and that is something that we had been working on on the power play, to kind of hit him at the top.

“I was also really impressed with Brian Kment, the way the rookie netminder has come in and this is eight in a row now and he is definitely looking comfortable in there. We are confident in him and real happy with the way he is playing.

“But I think you can pick anybody right through our lineup. The boys are all buying in right now and that is a real good sign going forward. If we can continue to do that and continue to work, we have a good chance to win it.”

Butorac increased the Thunderbirds’ lead to 3-1 prior to the end of the second period.

Haines made it a 4-1 game midway through the final period and Anthony Miller iced the game when he scored into an empty net with 1:20 remaining to play in the third period.

Smith was impressed with the Eskimos play, especially in Game 3 and Game 4.

“I really like that team,” he said.

“(Eskimos coach and general manager) Paul (Gagne) does a great job and they have a number of players I really like. They are a hard-working team. They are honest. They are not dirty. They play the game the way it is supposed to be played and I think that is a credit to Paul.

“We have had great games with them all year. They are a good hockey team.”

Gagne was disappointed with the outcome of Thursday’s game and the series, but proud of the season the Eskimos were able to put together in 2013-14.

“We lost the series,” he said.

“I thought we played not as good in the first game, we played better in the second game and we played excellent the third game. Tonight we worked hard. We didn’t play the best, but we worked extremely hard.

“I just want to emphasize that we don’t want to judge our team just on this series, or in this game tonight, because we have had a pretty successful season.

“We had a tight, really tight, dressing room, we had fun all year and our players don’t need to be judged just on this series.

“We have to give the Soo lots of credit. They are a great hockey club and we had our hands a little bit full.

“And we still had our opportunities, but their goalie made some great saves and he kept them in there.

“You know what, we lost to a pretty good hockey club.”

The Eskimos will lose seven key veterans — Brody Wagner, Steven Pettite, Ryan Wildman, Zach Innes, Jacob Kenney, Landon HIebert and Erik Robichaud — but they have a solid corps of players eligible to return in 2014-15.

“They provided some great leadership and I am hoping that the younger guys learned lots this year, not just from the coaching staff but also from the older players,” Gagne said.

“We will have quite a few players back next year and hopefully they will continue on and be leaders.”

Eskimos captain Kevin Walker was also proud of how well the team played against the Thunderbirds and the Bobcats in the quarter-finals.

“Our compete level was at 100%,” he said.

“We gave it our all and I am really proud of the way the boys played.”

Walker and his teammates had an opportunity to learn first-hand exactly what makes the Thunderbirds so good.

“They compete really hard, as well,” he said.

“They forecheck well and they are quick on the transition game. They are a great hockey team and it just goes to show how hard we worked, competing against them night in and night out.

“It is a little frustrating because we worked so hard as a team and we are a tight knit group and we just didn’t get rewarded for it.”

Like his coach, Walker feels the Eskimos are going to have the makings of a pretty good team in 2014-15 if all the players eligible to return come back.

“I think we are going to be a very hard hockey team to beat next year,” he said.

“I think we are going to be in really good shape for next year.”