SAULT STE. MARIE - The Soo Thunderbirds edged the Abitibi Eskimos 5-4 Saturday night at the Esser Centre to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven NOJHL semi-final series.
Three-straight goals 1:03 apart in the first period put the home side in front, but the Eskimos battled back to make it a 4-3 game prior to the end of the opening frame.
“We jumped on them early,” said Thunderbirds coach Jordan Smith.
“We got a quick lead and we were real happy with the way we started the game, but then I thought we got away from our game plan a bit and we allowed the Eskis to get back in the game.
“We are happy with winning Game 1, but we are going to need to be better here in Game 2.”
The Eskimos tied Game 1 up 4-4 in the second period, before Gavin Burbach scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal short handed with 23 seconds remaining in the frame.
“It was a huge goal, obviously, the game winner,” Smith said.
“It was a great individual effort by Darcy Haines to make his way to the net and fight off two checkers and find Bur back door.
“I told those guys at the start of the playoffs that they are not going to score the way they did in the regular season. That’s just playoff hockey. The checking is tighter. It is harder to score. There aren’t as many goals. They are just going to have to continue to work hard and when there is an opportunity to score, bury their chance.
“I don’t think Bur is frustrated, at all. Blind River played a great series against us, a great series, and I don’t understand why everybody is so surprised by that, that they were one-goal games. It is playoff hockey, all the games are decided by one goal, outside of the back-to-back blowouts between the Eskimos and Elliot Lake (7-1 for the Bobcats and 6-2 for the Eskimos).
“Other than that, it is a different game. So, we are happy with the way Bur is playing and hopefully we can find a way to win Game 2.”
Burbach’s short-handed goal proves that the Thunderbirds are capable of creating offence regardless of the situation.
“Those two especially,” Smith said.
“They work very hard to score. That is why Bur had 48 goals, because he works hard for them.
“And I don’t think the play by Haines can be overlooked. Bur scored the goal, but he more or less finished off a brilliant effort by Haines to work his way to the net while being hooked and held, at one point he went to his knees and then got back up and he knew where Burbach was and Bur was in the right spot.”
Anthony Miller, Nicolas Tassone, Eric Hillock and Matthew Mitchell had the other Thunderbirds goals.
Landon Hiebert had a pair of goals for the Eskimos, while Brenden Locke and Zach Innes each scored once.
Despite the loss, Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased with the way the Eskimos played in Game 1, for the most part.
“We made four errors, which we hadn’t been doing the last four or five games,” he said.
“I don’t know if we should blame it on the road trip, being on the bus all day, but we were not 100%. We made some mental errors and it cost us, but we were still in the game at 4-4 and we had a power play.
“Then we had a lackadaisical pass up the middle, in the neutral zone, we didn’t take our man and bang, goal, 5-4 and game over.
“There was no reason for that, soft pass. We were not up to par, but this was an opportunity for us, because they were not as sharp as they normally are.
“So now, tonight, we have got to make a difference here. We have got to keep it simple and eliminate our mistakes.
“And I believe we have a chance.”
One of the keys for the Eskimos to leave Sault Ste. Marie with a victory will be to keep their opponents from scoring goals in such a short span.
“Those three goals were three brain farts,” Gagne said.
“I hate to use that term, but it is true. There was no reason for giving the puck away like that and even with that, we were still in the game.
“Tonight we have got to continue playing the same way, except giving away these give aways and turnovers.
“We had a good meeting this morning and we will make sure it doesn’t happen twice.”
Regardless of how it was achieved, Smith was pleased to see the Thunderbirds start the semifinals on the right foot.
“We got the puck deep, especially early,” he said.
“That is why we were able to capitalize on a little bit of sloppy defensive play by the Eskis and kind of caught them in a lull, I think, and then we kind of got away from that and it allowed them to kind of claw their way back into the game.
“I thought our team showed resiliency, I thought we showed character in getting the job done and sticking with it at a time when we could have just folded our tents. We didn’t, we stuck with it and we found a way to win.
Brian Kment of the Thunderbirds made 18 saves to pick up the victory, while Brody Wagner of the Eskimos turned aside 35 shots while taking the loss.
“The Eskis had a couple of two-on-one opportunities last night, as well, but Brian made a couple of big saves for us. If that puck goes in, it’s a whole different game.”
Kment backed up NOJHL MVP Joel Horodziejczyk during the regular season, but he has played five of the Thunderbirds six playoff games and he has excelled.
“Brian is 5-0 right now,” Smith said.
“Joel has the ability to steal a game and you need that in the playoffs, but so does Brian. Brian has done that for us, as well.
“We didn’t score a whole lot in the Blind River series, but Brian played great in net.
“If we wanted to play Horodziejczyk, we probably could right now, but we are comfortable with Brian. He is playing well, we are winning hockey games and at this time of year, that is all that matters.”
The Thunderbirds were 1-4 on the power play, while the Eskimos went 3-6 with the man advantage, something the Thunderbirds’ coach feels must change in Game 2.
“Two of their first three goals were on the power play,” Smith said.
“They were deflections in front and there is not much you can really do when the puck hits a stick and kind of finds its way in the back of the net, but we definitely need to be more disciplined.
“We can’t afford to let them keep going to the power play.
“We don’t necessarily want to change being physical or playing with intensity, but we definitely need to stay out of the box.”
Game 2 in the series will be played at the Esser Centre on Sunday, starting at 7:30 p.m.