Timmins Rock forward Derek Seguin, shown here in action against the Cochrane Crunch during a game at the McIntyre Arena on Feb. 19, is tied for the NOJHL lead in points with nine and is tops in goals for seven to this point in the playoffs. If the Rock are to continue their torrid playoff success when they open the East Division final against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre Friday night, they will need Seguin firing on all cylinders. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS
By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Anybody who is surprised the Timmins Rock and the Cochrane Crunch are meeting for the NOJHL’s East Division title likely doesn’t know very much about the history of the two franchises.
Forget for a moment that to earn the right to face the Crunch (36-17-2-1) — who finished second in the East Division and fourth overall during the regular season — the Rock had to first knock off the Hearst Lumberjacks by winning not once but twice at the Claude Larose Arena and then get past the NOJHL’s top team and the No. 4-ranked squad in Canada in the Powassan Voodoos.
Also, ignore the fact the Crunch need to avoid being upset by the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in their East Division semi-final series.
These two teams have met in the playoffs almost every year since the Crunch (then known as the Elliot Lake Bobcats) broke into the league during the 2012-13 season.
That first year, in fact, is the only time they did not meet — with the Rock (then known as the Abitibi Eskimos) being swept in four-straight games by the Soo Thunderbirds and the Bobcats bowing out to the Sudbury Nickel Barons (now the Rayside-Balfour Canadians) in seven games.
In the spring of 2014, the Rock edged the Bobcats 4-3 in a best-of-seven series, with defenceman Ryan Kerr scoring the winning goal in overtime of Game 7 at the Jus Jordan Arena
During the off season, the Bobcats relocated to the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane, officially becoming the Crunch.
At the conclusion of the 2014-15 season, the Crunch gained a degree of revenge by taking out the Eskimos 4-2, with Dustin Cordeiro netting the game-winning goal in a 5-3 series-clinching victory at the Jus Jordan Arena.
In that off season, it was the Eskimos turn to relocate as they made the move to the McIntyre Arena in Timmins and became known as the Rock.
The third playoff meeting between the two franchises, following the 2015-16 season, resulted in the Crunch sweeping the Rock 4-0 in the East Division semi-finals, with defenceman Joseph Thielen potting the game-winning goal in a 5-2 series-clinching victory at the McIntyre Arena.
And, of course, the Rock upset the Crunch 4-2 in the 2017 East Division semi-finals, with Wayne Mathieu scoring the game-winning marker in a 3-2 overtime series-clinching victory at the McIntyre Arena.
So, heading into this year’s East Division final — which gets underway Friday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane — each team has won two of their four previous playoff series.
That likely has a lot to do with why the Rock vs Crunch rivalry has grown to rival that of the Maple Leafs vs Canadiens or the Boston Red Sox vs New York Yankees, to switch sports for a minute.
The Crunch have home-ice advantage for the series, by virtue of their second-place finish, during the regular season, with Game 2 (Saturday at 7 p.m.), Game 5 (Friday, April 6), if necessary, and Game 7 (Tuesday, April 10), if necessary all slated for the Tim Horton Event Centre, as well.
Meanwhile, Game 3 (Monday at 7 p.m.), Game 4 (Wednesday at 7 p.m.) and Game 6 (Sunday, April 8), if necessary, will be played at the McIntyre Arena.
Offensively, the Crunch are averaging more than four goals a game since the playoffs started.
They have five players — Kyle Herbster (5, 2-4-6, 2), Zach Hayes (5, 3-2-5, 2), Austin Stauffer (5, 3-2-5, 6), Nicolas Flanders (5, 2-3-5, 4) and defenceman Connor Lovie (5, 2-3-5, 2) — who are averaging at least a point a game through five playoff games.
Lovie, of course, is the NOJHL’s regular-season MVP, top defenceman and first team all-star at that position.
The Rock, not quite as offensively challenged as they were during the regular season, have just two players — NOJHL playoff scoring leader Derek Seguin (8, 7-2-9, 10) and Riley Robitaille (8, 5-3-8, 14) — who have hit that mark.
They have, however, received solid offensive contributions from Wayne Mathieu (9, 3-4-7, 0), defenceman Jared Hester (9, 1-4-5-, 4) and Tyler Gilberds (8, 3-1-4, 8).
On the defensive side of the puck, the Crunch allowed just eight goals in five games against the Gold Miners.
Cochrane’s creasemates — Taylor Unruh (180:00, 3-0-0, 0, 2.00, .893) and Shayne Battler (120:00, 1-1-0, 1, 1.00, .956) — were both solid against the Gold Miners.
The Rock will counter with the duo of Tyler Masternak (511:00, 6-3-0, 1, 2.47, .934) and Eric Jackson (50:00, 0-0-0, 0, 2.39, .938).
Special teams can be an important factor in any playoff series, and the Crunch have the NOJHL’s fourth best power play (three goals in 17 opportunities for an efficiency rating of 17.6%).
The Rock have continued to struggle in that department in the post season and sit in eighth place (six goals in 46 chances for an efficiency rating of 13.0%).
On the other side of the puck, the Crunch have the NOJHL’s fourth-best penalty kill (two goals allowed in 17 opportunities for an efficiency rating of 88.2%).
The Rock feature the sixth-best penalty kill in the playoffs (six goals allowed in 39 chances for an efficiency rating of 84.6%).
And it should be noted half of that total came in Game 5 of the East Division semi-final series in Powassan with two of the Rock’s best penalty killers — Evan Kentish-Stack (7, 2-1-3, 0) and Linden Spencer (7, 1-1-2, 17) — out of the lineup.
Kentish-Stack, of course, returned for the 2-1 overtime Game 6 series-clinching win over the Voodoos.
Spencer, on the other hand, will miss the entire series after a league revue pinned down his indefinite suspension for a spitting incident in Game 4 of the series against the Voodoos at 12 games. He has, to this point, served two games, with another 10 to go before he can return to action.
Both the Rock and the Crunch have scored one shorthanded goal and surrendered one to this point in the playoffs.
The status of another Rock forward, C.J. Bradburn (2, 0-1-1, 0), remains unclear heading into the East Division final.
Bradburn (upper-body injury), whose 17 goals were tops on the Rock during the regular season, has not played since the second game of the East Division quarterfinal series against the Lumberjacks.
So, heading into the start of the series the smart money would appear to be on the Crunch, but it should be remembered the Rock are playing with house money at this point.
Few people expected them to get past the Lumberjacks in the East Division quarterfinals and almost nobody would have predicted — at least not publicly — that they would take down the NOJHL’s top team in the East Division semi-finals.
Even if they were to get swept in four-straight games — which is not likely to happen — their 2018 playoffs would have to be considered a huge success.
No, with nothing to lose, it certainly would not be too surprising to see the Rock silence the Crunch and move on to the NOJHL final.