IROQUOIS FALLS - The Abitibi Eskimos will be in tough this weekend as they look to find their way back to the victory column.
The Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League’s only two undefeated teams — the Soo Thunderbirds and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners — will visit the Jus Jordan Arena in hopes of adding to their win totals.
The Thunderbirds, who defeated the North Bay Trappers 6-3 on home ice in their only regular season match so far this season, will play in Kirkland Lake Friday night before travelling to Iroquois Falls for a Saturday night meeting with the Eskimos.
Then on Sunday night, the Eskimos will host the Gold Miners, who have won all three of their regular- season games — including a 6-2 win over the Nickel Barons in Sudbury on Wednesday night.
Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne knows that the Thunderbirds are perennially a powerhouse in the NOJHL and he expects nothing different this season.
“I think they have nine or 10 guys back from last year and they are good hockey players, so we are going to have our hands full again,” he said.
“But we have been working hard this week, because we have a Saturday-Sunday.”
Thunderbirds back from last season include Derek Battagin (45, 13-30-43, 43), Anthony Butorac (42, 8-17-25, 19), Gavin Burbach (32, 12-13-25, 30), Anthony Miller (45, 21-26-47, 23), Daniel Pymaki (40, 3-13-16, 59), Tyler Jones (37, 7-16-23, 29), Joey Miller (40, 6-15-21, 32), Jeremy Solomon (38, 1-9-10, 61) and Joel Horodziejczyk (32 games, 2.38 goals against average, .918 saves percentage).
With two high-calibre opponents in town this weekend, the Eskimos are hoping to see a large crowd on both Saturday and Sunday.
Attendance at last Saturday’s home opener was an impressive 726.
While the opposition for both weekend games will be top notch, Gagne likes the way his team has been playing.
“As a coach, I like what I see,” he said.
“We are making progress. I saw some players who didn’t have such a great game last Wednesday and Saturday night they excelled. They worked hard. They were much, much improved.”
One of the biggest challenges for any team early in the season is getting a firm grip on the type of system their coach likes to employ.
“It’s a matter of doing the little things,” Gagne said.
“Instead of trying to beat a guy one-on-one, skate and stop gliding, forecheck a little bit more and dump the puck in a little bit more … getting it deep and with a little bit more cycling in the corners … all these little things.
“They have to be instinctive and at this time of the year, they are not. You keep telling them and slowly, but surely … stop being vulnerable with the puck, work to protect the puck, fight for the puck … stuff like that.
“But until they have it in their brain … that’s why you call it a program, because we program them to do these little things.”
Eskimos rookie centre Brenden Locke feels the secret to getting back on the winning track against the Thunderbirds is simple.
“I just think we need to follow Paul’s system and keep on working hard, never quit, just give it our all at all times,” he said.
The former Kapuskasing Flyer is hoping to be able to help out on the scoreboard, but realizes that he has to be sound defensively, as well.
“There are bigger guys in this league and faster guys, so I just have to get my legs going and maybe get a bit bigger … try to add some size in the gym,” Locke said.
“I just have to get the monkey off my back and try to get a couple of points, to help the team get the win.”
The 16 year old brings a lot of speed to the Eskimos lineup.
“I like to get the puck off the rush and just go around the D, because I am not the biggest guy,” Locke said.
“The corners are not my strength, but I like using my speed.”
Game time for both Saturday and Sunday is 7:30 p.m.