By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
Wednesday, March 15, 2017 7:54:51 EDT PM
COCHRANE – The Timmins Rock and the Crunch are set to renew hostilities with the puck scheduled to drop for Game 1 of their best-of-seven East Division semifinal series Thursday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane.
And after being swept by the Crunch in four-straight games and eliminated from the NOJHL playoffs last season, the Rock will be hoping for a little better result this time around.
For that to happen, however, Timmins will have to find a way to win at the Tim Horton Event Centre — a building that has not been kind to them over the years — given the Crunch were able to secure home-ice advantage by finishing second in the East Division standings, five points ahead of the third-place Rock.
The 2016-17 regular season was no exception, as the Crunch won all four games played in Cochrane — 6-1 on Feb. 14, 6-1 on Jan. 14, 6-4 on Dec. 21 and 7-5 on Dec. 2.
Home ice has been much more friendly to the Rock, with the team taking three of the four contests played at the McIntyre Arena — 4-0 on Feb. 7, 5-3 on Jan. 12, 5-2 on Nov. 23 and 3-8 on Sept. 28 — while a ninth contest, played in Sudbury during the NOJHL’s Showcase tournament ended with the Crunch recording a 4-2 victory.
Game 1 of the series might the best opportunity for the Rock to steal home-ice advantage away from the Crunch, given that Cochrane hasn’t played a meaningful game since edging the Powassan Voodoos in their final contest of the 2016-17 regular season back on March 3 and they have only played two games in the past 21 days.
“We are not going in there just looking to split,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We are looking at winning the first game. That is our objective right now, to go in there and beat the crap out of them. End of story. Game 2, we will see what happens.”
Gagne knows what the Rock will have to do Thursday night to reverse the trend of negative results they have endured the past couple of seasons at the Tim Horton Event Centre.
“There are parts of our game, such as our play down low, that we are going to have to execute well, but a lot of the goals — by both teams — are scored five feet from the front of the net,” he said.
“That is an area that has to be addressed and we have been working on it in practice.
“We don’t have to worry about our work ethic, our commitment and our motivation.”
The veteran coach knows the importance of special teams — especially in the playoffs.
“Success on the power play and the penalty kill can make or break a team,” Gagne said.
Regardless of where the games are being played, special teams could be an important factor.”
After being ranked near the top of the league most of the season, both the Rock and the Crunch saw their power-play efficiency slip in the final few weeks of the regular season.
As a result, the Rock finished with the third-most effective record with the man advantage, scoring on 19.8% of their opportunities — trailing only the Voodoos (20.5%) and the Iroquois Falls Eskis (20.3%).
And the Crunch, with an efficiency rating of 18.1%, finished seventh in the NOJHL.
The Crunch, with a success rate of 82.5%, were the seventh-most effective team on the penalty kill in 2016-17, while the Rock, at 81.4%, were eighth.
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard noted: “Our power-play needs to get a little bit stronger. We struggled a little bit the last five or six weeks. We kind of took a dive during that nine-game stretch in February, but we were missing some key guys on our power play, like Joey Thielen (31, 6-24-30, 24). That was huge. He puts up a lot of good numbers for us. You take a guy like (Rock captain Jordan) Rendle out of their power play, how strong would it be?”
One of the strengths of the Rock attack during the regular season was a relentless forecheck, but Gagne knows the Crunch have a veteran defensive corps, which might make executing that game plan a little more difficult.
“The key is going to be to play as much of the game as possible 200 feet away from the front of our net,” he said.
“That way if you make a mistake, you still have time to recover and implement your defensive program.
“We are going to have to work on their defence. We know that defensively their forwards are not the most committed, so we need to exploit that fact. There is no better way of doing that than play in our offensive zone.”
There is, of course, a fine line when it comes to playing an aggressive forechecking game and not taking too many penalties.
“Puck possession is going to be key,” Gagne said.
“If we can get and keep possession of the puck, then I can’t see any of our guys getting penalties. If we can maintain puck possession, something positive is going to happen, absolutely.”
Leonard has tried to keep the Crunch busy during their 12-day break from game action.
“We have been doing a lot of fun stuff as a team,” he said.
“We have been holding some four-on-four tournaments and some three-on-three tournaments, trying to keep them focused and playing with a bit of intensity. Losing teams have had to clean our room, little things like that, just to keep things competitive.
“There is not much else you can do. You can only practise so much and you can only talk about systems so much, especially when you have 12 days to do it.
“We have been on the ice every day for an hour and a half. We have been training every day for an hour and watching video every day for an hour and a half, keeping busy that way, taking Saturdays and Sundays off.”
Leonard sees both pros and cons to being off for an extended period of time like the Crunch have been while waiting for the start of their East Division semifinal series with the Rock.
“On the plus side, 12 days gives the guys a chance to heal up,” he said.
“Now, we are 100% healthy. Another positive is that we should be a lot more hungry to play a game when the series starts on Thursday.
“On the other hand, we might be a little bit rusty, or some guys might come out a little bit complacent.
“We will see which way things are going to flop Thursday night.”
Leonard realizes the importance for the Crunch to not surrender home-ice advantage after working so hard all season to secure it.
“That’s going to be huge,” he said.
“We know what kind of building they have in the McIntyre Arena. It is probably one of the toughest buildings to play in in this league. Anytime a team can pack 1,000 fans who are screaming, yelling and cheering for their team into a rink, it is tough. Anytime we go to Timmins, the fans play a big role as a sixth player.
“It is not hard to go there and get all caught up in the emotions.
“In our rink, the way it is set up, there are not fans on both sides of the ice surface. In Cochrane, the fans are all the way across the rink.”
Even though Cochrane only won one of the four games they played in Timmins, Leonard is confident the Crunch can be successful at the McIntyre Arena, as well.
“Two out of the three games we lost, we had good, healthy leads and we let our emotions get the best of us,” he said.
“All we have to do is keep our composure and I think we will be in good shape.”
Overall, the Rock — with 271 — were tied with the Voodoos for most goals scored in the NOJHL in the regular season, while the Crunch were third with 257.
The Rock featured nine players — Rendle (52, 38-33-71, 77), Tyler Romain (55, 31-35-66, 33), Wayne Mathieu (54, 29-32-61, 22), Bain Cunningham(56, 19-42-61, 49), Cory Sprague (54, 24-25-49, 62), Jacob Shankar (46, 21-22-43, 44), Cole Gilligan (55, 22-20-42, 4), Stewart Parnell (54, 10-32-42, 30) and Alexandre Brisson (48, 17-23-40, 42) — who cracked the 40-point barrier this season and late-season acquisition Dean Kiriacou (22, 6-16-22, 8) averaged a point per game.
The Crunch, meanwhile, only had four players — NOJHL scoring champion Braedan Cross (54, 37-45-82, 38), Konnar Dechaine (54, 33-35-68, 32), Brandon McReynolds (54, 27-41-68, 36) and Nate Viberg (50, 27-38-65, 22) — hit that mark.
Cochrane did, however, have six other players — Kyle Herbster (56, 17-16-33, 2), Bailey Shaver (51, 17-15-32, 64), Nicolas Flanders (54, 12-18-30, 68), Haiden Karnick (53, 12-15-27, 45), Darian Harris (44, 14-10-24, 32) and Austin Whelan (38, 10-11-21, 6) — who scored at least 10 goals during the regular season.
And Justin Hess (23, 8-12-20, 36) averaged almost a point per game this season, while Shane Woolsey (14, 2-2-4, 2) is a proven scorer who missed much of the season with a lower-body injury.
In any playoff series goaltending is usually a key factor and if the Rock are going to upset the Crunch, NOJHL second-team all-star Albert Rogers will have to bring his “A game.”
Heading into the series Rogers (1,676:00, 16-8-2-1, 1, 3.15, .911) is clearly entrenched as the Rock’s No. 1 puck stopper, with backup Jeff Veitch (414:00, 4-2-1-0, 0, 4.20, .887) ready to step up should he falter.
The picture is not quite as clear in the Crunch crease, however.
Leighton Williams (1,698:00, 20-7-1-0, 1, 2.76, .910) and Taylor Unruh (690:00, 8-4-0-0, 1, 2.87, .905) have both had moments when they have have looked capable of carrying the Crunch on their shoulders and others when they have struggled to stop the puck.
“Our goaltending has been good, but has it been consistent?” Leonard said.
“We still don’t know who our starter is going to be going into Thursday night’s game. It’s a toss up. One night, Williams will have one hell of a game and then the next night Unruh will have one hell of a game.
“Then, you will have nights when they are letting in shots from the hash marks.”
For teams to have success in the playoffs, they require their best players to be their best players, but often it is an unsung hero who proves to be the difference maker.
“We are hoping for one of our goalies to step up and be an unsung hero,” Leonard said.
“In our last 10 games, we have only had two games where we gave up more than 23 shots in a game and we have still had to battle to win.”
The Crunch have no intention of doing anything differently against the Rock than they did during the regular season.
“We just have to go out there and play our game,” Leonard said.
“We have been pretty successful playing within our structure. We have skilled guys who can play a 200-foot game.”
Gagne agrees both teams need their best players to be their best players in the series, but he feels the team that will eventually win it will be the one that gets the most complete team effort.
“You need contributions from your third line, your fourth line,” he said.
“Those kinds of guys make a big difference. They kill penalties. They shut down the other team’s top lines and if they can generate a goal here or there it certainly makes a difference.”
Since the regular season ended, the Rock have spent countless hours reviewing tape of Crunch games.
“There is no secret to the way they play,” Gagne said.
“They shoot the puck from anywhere on the ice and they have a lot of talent on that team. They are a fast-skating team and they just go, you don’t see any set plays or system … you don’t see it. It’s like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what you are going to get.”
Both the Rock and the Crunch are completely healthy heading into the start of the series Thursday night.
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.
Game 2 will also be played at the Tim Horton Event Centre Saturday night, with the series moving back to Timmins for Game 3 on Wednesday, March 22, and Saturday, March 25.