SAULT STE. MARIE - The Abitibi Eskimos gave it everything they had Sunday afternoon at the John Rhodes Arena but despite their best efforts, the Soo Thunderbirds flew off with a 6-3 victory.
Missing leading scorer Brady Clouthier (32, 31-31-62, 37) due to school commitments and forwards Kyle Levis (33, 7-6-13, 41) and Cosmo Amore (31, 4-5-9, 27), as well as defenceman Michael Rancourt (21, 1-1-2, 6), due to the flu, the Eskimos also lost the services of forwards Ryan Tront (25, 16-18-34, 25) and Ryan Attwood (34, 12-22-34, 46) early Sunday afternoon.
Both Tront and Attwood have been battling upper body injuries and their status for the Eskimos’ next game — the latest installment of the Battle of Highway 11 — against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane remains in doubt.
Despite the short bench, the Eskimos held the Thunderbirds in check in the first period, escaping with a 2-2 draw — thanks in large part to the stellar puck stopping of goalie Logan Ferrington, who made 16 saves in the opening frame.
“Everybody who was able to play, played excellent,” said Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“Everybody rose to the occasion. They were all playing different roles (than they would normally play).
“Some players had more power-play time, or more penalty-kill time. We even had a defenceman playing forward. Everyone was involved.
“There were no passengers on Sunday.”
Even healthy teams have difficulty finding success against the Thunderbirds — especially at the John Rhodes Arena.
“They capitalized on the one power play,” Gagne said.
“That was a big thing.
“And they have that one big line that has so much speed. They have a good hockey club, but especially that one line with the young (Nicolas) Tassone.
“He has so much speed and he makes things happen every time he is on the ice. You have to be careful with him.”
The Thunderbirds employ a style, as well, that makes them very hard to play against.
“They like to forecheck,” Gagne said.
“It was mostly in the first period that we really had issues in the defensive zone.
“We rectified that quite early, because our priority was to get the puck out. We only had eight forwards, so we just wanted to get it out.
“We did not want to be in our defensive zone for no reason. We caught on and we were able to get it out and get two-on-ones and three-on-ones because we were getting it out.
“The old saying goes that if you are playing against a great team, and they are a great team, and you want to be successful, you have to spend less time in your defensive zone.”
The Thunderbirds got on the scoreboard first, when Joey Miller beat Ferrington to put the home side in front 1-0.
Brenden Locke got that one back for the Eskimos midway through the period when he converted a Patrick Picard set up for his 26th goal of the season to make it a 1-1 hockey game.
Eric Hillock restored the Thunderbirds’ one-goal advantage just over two minutes later when he netted a power-play goal.
Brennan Roy, who normally patrols the blue-line for the Eskimos, showed he is equally as skilled up front as he scored his 16th goal of the season to tie things up at 2-2 prior to the end of the opening period.
The second period was all Thunderbirds, as the home side put two goals past Ferrington to take a 4-2 lead.
Tassone netted his first of two goals on the afternoon early in the period and then Boris Katchouk scored five minutes later to add to the lead.
The Eskimos who had been limited to 13 shots on goal through the first two periods, stepped up their intensity in the final 20 minutes.
“We hit a crossbar, we hit a post and we had a three-on-one and two two-on-ones,” Gagne said.
“We had some opportunities to really do some damage. If we had scored, the game would have changed, the momentum would have changed.
“We were right in there. Even with how few shots we had (in the first two periods), they were quality shots.
“Things were going well for us, except we didn’t capitalize and sometimes you don’t capitalize.
“We had seven shots and two goals in the first period and that tells me our goalie was better than theirs and he was. He was excellent.
“Logan had a great game and it was nice to see. He held us in there and he did his job. He was awesome.
Tassone’s second goal of the game, with just 2:14 to play in the third period increased the Thunderbirds’ lead to 5-2.
Tristan Salesse scored his 10th goal of the season 45 seconds later to give the Eskimos a faint hope of a comeback and Gagne opted to pull Farrington in favour of an extra attacker.
The move did not pay off, however, as Brett Jeffries scored an unassisted, empty-net goal for the Thunderbirds to make the final score 6-3.
Mario Culina needed to make just 21 saves to earn the victory for the Thunderbirds, while Ferrington turned aside 40 Soo shots to take the loss.
Defenceman Joe Olson, whom the Eskimos acquired prior to Saturday’s trade deadline, was not with the team for its three-game road trip to Elliot Lake, Blind River and Sault Ste. Marie.
The 19-year-old, 6-2, 190-pound Maple Ridge, B.C., native is expected to join the Eskimos in time for Tuesday’s practice.
“We are hoping that he will be able to play in our top three or four,” Gagne said.
“The scouting report on him is that he makes a good first pass and he is a little feisty. He can play on the power play and in every situation.
“He really competes and he is a good all-around hockey player.
“His ex-coach says this guy is a really, really nice player.
“He played with (Eskimos forward Jake) Holland (also a Maple Ridge, B.C., native) last year.”
Prior to being picked up by the Eskimos, Olson spent time this season with the Ridge Meadows Flames (18, 1-9-10, 51), of the PIJHL, and the Surrey Eagles (2, 0-1-1, 0), of the BCHL