IROQUOIS FALLS - No Erik Robichaud, no Ryan Wildman, no problem!
Missing their Top 2 centres, the Abitibi Eskimos upset the NOJHL-leading Soo Thunderbirds 3-2 in overtime at the Jus Jordan Arena Saturday night.
“We knew a couple of guys had to step up,” said Eskimos assistant coach and general manager Dan Dube.
“And the guys did step up tonight and we played well in the defensive zone. Our goalie played well and we kept our game plan simple — get the puck down deep, work the puck down deep and get some shots on net and it paid off for us tonight.”
Ryan Tront got the Eskimos on the scoreboard first when he beat Soo netminder Brian Kment 2:53 into the second period.
“Getting the first goal in any game is important, to get the momentum on our side right off the hop,” Dube said.
The Thunderbirds rebounded, however, and playing with a two-man advantage, Joey Miller netted a power-play goal to make it a 1-1 hockey game.
With captain Kevin Walker off for cross-checking, defenceman Ryan Kerr took a tripping penalty behind the Eskimos net to set up the Soo’s opportunity.
The Thunderbirds then took a 2-1 lead on Anthony Miller’s goal with Eskimo Ben Miller in the penalty box.
Miller was sent off for pulling down a Soo player from behind at the Soo blue line, a call that upset Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne and the more than 400 fans in attendance.
The Eskimos were able to get back on even terms before the end of the period, however, as Tront netted his second goal of the game — this time on the power play.
Neither team was able to find the back of the net in the third period of play, sending the game to overtime.
It took Brady Clouthier just 44 seconds to lift the home fans to their feet, as he buried a cross-crease pass behind Kment to win it for the Eskimos.
“In the second period we got into a little bit of penalty trouble,” Dube said.
“They got a couple of goals, but we were able to kill off the rest and have a 2-2 hockey game going into the third period.
“And after that it became win a period, win a game. That’s what we told the guys between periods and that’s what they did in the third and in overtime.”
Eskimos goalie Brody Wagner played another solid game, turning aside 30 of the 32 shots the Thunderbirds fired his way.
“He was really composed back there,” Dube said.
“It’s a good feeling on the bench when you know your goalie is going to make the first save.
“We knew we would have the second one, because we were getting the rebounds out.
“He has been playing really solid for us and we were really happy he was rewarded tonight with the win.”
Wagner realized just how important a victory would be for the squad, especially since they were playing the No. 3 ranked team in Canada.
“It was pretty big,” he said.
“A lot of players stepped up today and we had lost a couple of our key players recently, so it was necessary for some of the guys to step up … it was huge.”
Wagner was seeing the puck well Saturday night.
“They have a good power play, but I thought our defence did a good job of keeping their offence out of the way so I could see most of the shots, which is huge.
“We battled all night on the penalty kill and in the second period especially. I thought it was a big second period for us.
“I thought our penalty kill was great tonight. Obviously we are going to keep working on stuff in practice, but it was, overall, a great game for us.”
Thunderbirds coach Jordan Smith, who watched his squad suffer their second-straight loss, although they were able to get a point out of Saturday night’s contest, was not too happy with his squad’s effort.
“It has been a tough road trip, for sure, but it’s a good test for us,” he said.
“It’s a good test of our character and it’s the first time this season we have faced adversity, so I am going to be interested to see how we come out tomorrow.”
During the Thunderbirds’ first trip to Iroquois Falls, Smith suggested there is a lot of parity in the NOJHL this season and that on any given night any team can beat any other team.
His words clearly came true on Saturday night.
“We tell our guys every night they are not going to have an easy game,” Smith said.
“I don’t there is such a thing as an easy game in this league. We are tested night in and night out and Abitibi played a great game tonight, full credit to them.
“They stuck with their system, they played hard and they played an all-around good game.”
The Thunderbirds were missing a number of key players from their lineup on Saturday night, including star goaltender Joel Horodziejczyk, but Smith was not about to start making excuses.
“I don’t think that was a factor,” he said.
“I think Brian played well. He is very capable of being a No. 1 goalie for us.
“We are not going to make any excuses for our performance.”
The Thunderbirds started off their road trip with a 5-2 loss in Kirkland Lake on Friday night, but they still lead the second-place Gold Miners by four points atop the NOJHL standings.
Clouthier and Tront, two thirds of the Eskimos’ No. 1 line, did not seem to miss a beat without Robichaud, who has joined the OHL’s Sarnia Sting.
“They brought back their chemistry, even without Robichaud, they still have their chemistry,” Dube said.
“They were finding each other well out there and they were creating little two-on-ones all over the ice.
“They got open ice and they got rewarded for it tonight.”
Having lost two of their key offensive weapons, the style the Eskimos played to beat the Thunderbirds Saturday night is the style fans can expect to see in the future.
“We are going to have to be patient moving forward,” Dube said.
“We are going to need some guys to step up and some guys are going to get more ice time with the loss of those two centres.
“So, what you saw tonight is going to be typical Eskimos hockey from now on in.”
ESKIMOS NOTES — With Saturday’s victory, the Eskimos are now two points up on the sixth-place Trappers and they have four games in hand on North Bay… The three stars were Clouthier, Tront and Joey Miller … Saturday’s other game saw the Elliot Lake Bobcats skate to a 3-2 overtime victory over the Blind River Beavers … The Eskimos were also missing forward Marc Dube, who remains out of the lineup with a concussion … The next game for the Eskimos will be on Friday night when they host the Espanola Rivermen at the McIntyre Arena in Timmins.