IROQUOIS FALLS - The Espanola Rivermen earned the first victory in the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League franchise’s history Saturday night.
The visitors skated off with a 3-1 decision to the dismay of the Abitibi Eskimos and more than 700 fans at the Jus Jordan Arena.
“I was not pleased with our effort in the last couple of minutes,” Eskimos coach and general manager Paul Gagne said.
“We don’t quit and we want to play right to the end, but we took some stupid penalties at the end and it was ugly … and I don’t like it.
“We have to learn the philosophy of the program here. I call it stupidity. It’s ugly and we addressed it.
“We will fight right up to the end, because you never know in hockey. Two shots … you can score goals in 15 seconds, or so, at the end.”
The Eskimos were not able to get on the scoreboard until the 15:45 mark of the third period, when Aaron Kerr circled the net, came out front and drilled a wrist shot high over the shoulder of Rivermen goalie Griffin Strain to cut the Espanola lead to 3-1.
Brennan Roy earned the lone assist on the power-play goal.
“On the scoresheet it was a 3-0 game (to that point), but I didn’t feel it was that way,” Gagne said.
“We hit a couple of posts, two crossbars … there was no domination from either side. The forecheck was great for them it was great for us. It was unfortunate, we lost two points tonight.
The Rivermen took a 1-0 lead in the first period, when Steven Savage beat Eskimos goalie Sylvain Miron for a power-play goal at the 12:45 mark.
Corbin Bean made it a 2-0 game early in the second period and Brandon Janke put the visitors in front 3-0 late in the frame.
Rivermen coach Tom McCarthy was happy to see his team earn its first victory of the season, following an 8-3 loss in Kirkland Lake Friday night.
“We are still not in game shape and I thought last night it was evident as the game wound down,” he said.
“I thought tonight we were a little better in our attention to detail. I thought our conditioning still wasn’t at par, but still it was a little better and we played a little smarter hockey tonight.”
Minimizing the number of offence chances the Eskimos got in the game was definitely part of the strategy for the Rivermen.
“When you give up eight goals the night before, you have to put a lot of attention on your defence,” McCarthy said.
“It‘s not always the goaltender. Sometimes it’s the forwards who are not playing defence properly, or the defence. It’s not always the back end, sometimes it’s the front end that isn’t helping out
“I think we did a little better job of being later coming out of the zone and picking up the late guy and being sure we shut down the attack.”
McCarthy didn’t hesitate to come back with Strain Saturday night, even though the 20 year old had given up eight goals the night before.
“We want to show him that our belief is still there,” the coach said.
“I think our team left him out to dry a little bit after we had a two goal lead and then all of a sudden were down 4-2. We didn’t have the endurance, or the conditioning.
“He has got to bounce back and he did … very well tonight. He seemed to cover his angles and there were about three, or four goal posts … but that means he is covering the area and they can’t get the puck in.”
Eskimos 16-year-old centre Brenden Locke did not find the scoreboard Saturday night, but he did not look out of place in his first home game in front of the enthusiastic Abitibi fans.
“There were a lot of fans and my friends and family watching, so it was good,” he said.
“I just tried to give it my all to try and get the W, but unfortunately we came up a bit short. We almost got it in the end.”
Locke was impressed with the Rivermen, especially given that they were playing just their second game of the year.
“They weren’t the fastest team, but they were all big and they were good in the corners,” he said.
“They played an easy game, a simple game. They came out and they stuck to their system, whereas we got away from our system and tried to do our own thing.”
The Rivermen were not giving the Eskimos much room to operate in the offensive zone.
“They are big guys and they have a big defence,” Locke said. “So they were limiting our shots and we had to dump it in a lot,” Locke said.
Former Timmins Major Brandon Major also had the opportunity to play in front of friends and family Saturday night, although he was wearing a Rivermen uniform.
“It was obviously a little different, because they all expected me to try out for Abitibi, but I like where I am,” he said.
“It felt good with all of those fans out there.”
Major also feels there is a big difference between playing in the Great North Midget League and the NOJHL.
“It’s a big change from midget,” he said.
“It’s a lot faster and you have got to keep your head up.”
Major is enjoying the opportunity to learn from an accomplished coach like McCarthy.
“He is an unreal coach,” he said. “Right to the last minute, he is all about winning.”
With a game under their belts, Major felt the Rivermen were more confident heading into Saturday night’s game.
“We were more relaxed,” he said.
“Our first game we weren’t used to being together as a team.”
McCarthy was pleased with the poise displayed by the Rivermen Saturday night.
“We were a little more patient,” he said.
“We weren’t trying to race all over the ice and trying to do everything on one shift. We stayed within out limitations. I thought we were thinking a little better and maybe seeing the ice better, instead of chasing the puck. We were playing like waterbugs last night, chasing the puck.”
ESKIMOS NOTES — Attendance for Saturday night’s game was 726 … The three stars of the game were Strain, Kerr and Roy … Strain made 25 saves, while Morin made 27 saves … The Eskimos were 1-8 on the power play, while the Rivermen were 1-5 on the power play … The Eskimos next game will be Saturday, Sept. 14, when they host the Soo Thunderbirds at the Jus Jordan Arena.