by mark.pare on March 14, 2017, 07:03pm. EDT
Paul Gagne vs. Ryan Leonard.
At this rate, it almost seems like a given that these two coaches meet in the NOJHL playoffs.
This is a chance for Gagne to avenge his 2016 and 2015 campaigns. The Crunch took the four-game sweep last season and a six-game series the year prior when the Rock were in Iroquois Falls as the Abitibi Eskimos.
But it was Gagne’s team who took their original encounter in a seven-game classic in 2014, when Leonard’s franchise was based in Elliot Lake as the Bobcats.
However, that was then and this is now.
And looking at the now, the big key could lie in who takes care of business at home as it’s been the theme all season long.
The Crunch took the season series 6-3, winning all four of their home games but losing three of four at the McIntyre Arena.
The other game was played in Sudbury as part of the NOJHL Showcase event in October.
In fact, since the Rock moved from Iroquois Falls to Timmins, they’ve only been able to muster a single win at the Tim Horton’s Event Centre…all the way back on November 26, 2015.
“Hopefully, we can break that trend,” Gagne said.
“We’re gearing up for this first game (Thursday) and there’s a lot of nerves, a little hype on both teams so it’d be nice to take that first one and keep the momentum going.”
At the very least, Gagne is looking for a two-game split to take home ice going into Game 3 next week in Timmins.
Tough task considering to date, the Crunch have won 10 straight home games—including a game in Smooth Rock Falls on Super Bowl Sunday.
But what has it been about home ice that’s been good to each team? Gagne says it’s the comfort level most of the time.
“Teams practice at home, they know the boards, they know the plexiglass…just the rink, the atmosphere. The home fan base is incredible (and) supportive.”
Leonard took a more literal approach in his analysis, pointing out the bigger ice surface at the THEC and his team’s speed and skill level to use that space.
But even he admits it was more than the ice surface when playing at the historic McIntyre Arena.
“Three of those four games we lost, we had leads, one game we had a 3-0 lead,” he said, “We let our emotions get the better of us and we get caught up in the moment and (they) get a lot of fans in there, it’s loud and we start taking some stupid penalties and it starts killing you. If we can control our emotions, we’ll have good success at The Mac.”
It goes the same way for Gagne in terms of keeping his team disciplined.
“You got to be disciplined towards your program, your emotions, disciplined (on not) taking stupid penalties,” he said.
“Sometimes in playoffs, you got to swallow your pride and do what’s best for the team and that’s what playoffs is all about.”
Course, you have to capitalize on power play chances in order to make the other team pay for their mistake. Unfortunately, neither team has had a lot of recent success on special teams.
The Rock have scored just three times in their last 22 opportunities, and all three of those goals came in their final game of the year in Iroquois Falls. The Crunch is right on par, going three for their last 21 on the man-advantage.
Not what you’d expect from two teams that spent the majority of the year in the top 5 in power play percentage. But this is a mere sample size of each team’s last five games overall.
The Rock finished the season 3rd in PP% at 19.8%. The Crunch dipped to 7th at 18.1%.
For Gagne, he says they work on different things but attributes the PP slump to individuals having bad breaks.
After going 3/8 against the Eskis on March 8th, the Rock have a boost of confidence in that respect.
Leonard, meantime, points out the early season special teams success took a dive in the month of February, when players were moving in and out of the lineup due to injuries and sicknesses.
He says special teams is an aspect they’ve been working on as of late. And while he believes it will play a role, it may not be as big a role as one might think.
“In playoffs, we’ve noticed for the last three or four years, the referees kind of put their whistles away and let you play, which is nice,” Leonard remarked, “We’ll just try to carry that on to hoping that we keep our mouths shut and just play hockey and hopefully we won’t have to kill too many penalties.”
The bigger worry for Leonard is working off the rust.
His team hasn’t played since March 3rd against Powassan, a span of 13 days. If you look even further, the Crunch have played just two games since February 24th.
By comparison, the Rock have played six games in that same stretch.
“You’re going to be a little rusty,” Leonard said, “You’re going to try a lot of stuff you want to try at the start but you just have to get yourselves into it.”
They’ll have to if they want to hit Gagne’s swan song.
Gagne—who is retiring at the end of this playoff run—isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet. He’ll be relying on a great team effort to get the job done.
“We have our philosophy,” he said, “It’s teamwork and program, program, program and when we execute that at a 100%, the odds are (good for us to win).”
He’ll have a healthy crew to work with, as will Leonard.
- GAME 1: Thursday, March 16 @ 7:30pm (Tim Horton’s Event Centre)
- GAME 2: Saturday, March 18 @ 7:30pm (Tim Horton’s Event Centre)
- GAME 3: Wednesday, March 22 @ 7:30pm (McIntyre Arena)
- GAME 4: Saturday, March 25 @ 7:30pm (McIntyre Arena)
- *GAME 5: Sunday, March 26 @ 6:00pm (Tim Horton’s Event Centre)
- *GAME 6: Tuesday, March 28 @ 7:30pm (McIntyre Arena)
- *GAME 7: Wednesday, March 29 @ 7:30pm (Tim Horton’s Event Centre)
* – if necessary
Tickets for games in Cochrane are available at the Crunch Box Office between 10am and 2pm daily, and all day starting at 10am on Game Day.
Tickets for games in Timmins are available at the McIntyre Arena Box Office 90 minutes before game time. You can also purchase tickets online at TimminsRock.com
If you purchase or renew your Rock season pass by Wednesday, March 15, you get FREE ENTRY to the Cochrane series at The Mac.
- February 14: Cochrane def. Timmins 6-1 (@ Cochrane)
- February 7: Timmins def. Cochrane 4-0 (@ Timmins)
- January 14: Cochrane def. Timmins 6-1 (@ Cochrane)
- January 12: Timmins def. Cochrane 5-3 (@ Timmins)
- December 21: Cochrane def. Timmins 6-4 (@ Cochrane)
- December 2: Cochrane def. Timmins 7-5 (@ Cochrane)
- November 23: Timmins def. Cochrane 5-2 (@ Timmins)
- October 11: Cochrane def. Timmins 4-2 (@ Sudbury for NOJHL Showcase)
- September 28: Cochrane def. Timmins 8-3 (@ Timmins)
The Crunch were led offensively by Braedan Cross, who won the NOJHL scoring title at 82 points.
But there are others like Konnar Dechaine, who had 33 goals on the year—nine of them against the Rock. And Brandon McReynolds, who tied Dechaine with 68 points overall this season.
After that, you don’t have to look far for more scoring. However, it may not have seemed like it earlier in the season.
The Crunch did much of their damage during the 2017 portion of their season, with many of their mid-season acquisitions.
And for all that firepower, the Crunch still finished 3rd with 257 goals. The Rock finished tied with Powassan for 1st at 271.
Rock captain Jordan Rendle helped in that cause, contributing 38 goals and finishing 3rd in the league in that category. It’s also one ahead of Cross, who led Cochrane’s attack at 37 tallies.
Timmins actually had six players finish with at least 20 goals. That would be Tyler Romain (31), Wayne Mathieu (29), Cory Sprague (24), Cole Gilligan (22) and Jacob Shankar (21). Bain Cunningham finished just outside a 19.
On the back end, Cochrane was led by their captain, NOJHL Defenseman of the Year Connor Lovie.
He never missed a game and kept it steady all season long, despite having to work with several pairings with all the injuries.
Taylor Armbruster and Quinn Robelle are more guys that stayed in the lineup consistently. Armbruster missed just five games and provided more veteran leadership. Robelle is a different story, as he only played 18 games in a Cochrane uniform, spending most of the year with Elliot Lake.
Joe Thielen—who led all Crunch D-men with 30 points—only played 31 games and missed the majority of January.
Timmins isn’t a slouch on the defensive side of the puck by any means either. They were certainly healthier, considering at least seven Rock D-men played 41 games or more this year.
Nick Hautanen played all but one game after a suspension in late September. The veteran put up career highs in goals (9), assists (17) and points (26) and looked much more confident with the puck this year.
Also playing 55 games was 19-year old Grant McClellan, who came in as a first-year player and logged consistent minutes.
Coincidently, the Rock’s leading D-man in points also put up 30. That would be Spencer Segui, who missed nine games after getting a puck to the mouth in December, which required dental surgery.
Jared Hester led the blue line in goals with 10, and he also missed time due to an upper body injury.
Not too bad for a defensive unit that lost five regulars from last year’s team.
When French River and Espanola struggled through the year, they still showed some sparks and kept teams honest.
Much of that can be two goaltenders that started the year with the Rapids and Express, but have ended the season as the #1 option on the Rock and Crunch respectively.
Al Rogers has shined since coming over from the Rapids in mid-November. He put up a 16-8-2-1 record with the Rock, and is one of only two goalies to hold a shutout win over the Crunch this season.
He’s a work horse, having played the most minutes among NOJHL goaltenders this season at 2,221 and was named a 2nd Team All-Star goaltender last week.
Jeff Veitch backs him up and looks to be in good health after falling ill to the flu bug, enough he had to spend time in the ICU.
He wasn’t the only one to get sick, the flu bug took it’s toll on many dressing rooms across the NOJHL this year.
Taylor Unruh made his NOJHL debut in early-November in Cochrane with the Express, and nearly stood on his head for the Western Division basement-dwellers.
He left an impression that was too hard to ignore, and was sent to the Crunch.
Unruh went on to a 5-1 month of January, earning him NOJHL Goalie of the Month honours.
And he didn’t stop there either. The numbers continued to get better and he finished with an 8-4 record for Cochrane, doing enough to secure the top job from Leighton Williams.
Don’t underestimate Williams though, he can be a solid backstop too.
He’s one of just four NOJHL goalies with 20 wins on the year, and his 2.76 goals against average sits 5th in the league.
The 21-year old has been handling the lighter workload in stride too, giving the Crunch one of the best goalie tandems in the league.