By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock had an opportunity to make a statement Wednesday night and prove they are worthy of challenging for top spot in the NOJHL’s East Division.
Instead, they crumbled on home ice at the McIntyre Arena, leaving fans wondering if they are nothing more than a fourth-place pretender.
The visiting Crunch — the only NOJHL team that has yet to lose in regulation — were quite happy to take advantage of the situation and skate off with an 8-3 victory in the first meeting of the teams since Cochrane knocked Timmins out of the 2016 playoffs.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne was not happy, to say the least, with his team’s performance.
“We weren’t prepared mentally,” he said.
“The first period was an indication of what was to come for the whole game. Our players were blaming the referees, but they were taking undisciplined penalties left and right.
“There was no reason for it. We took penalties on the power play and there was no reason. It was all just mental.”
The Rock, in fact, negated three of the four power-play opportunities they had on the night.
“We didn’t have any compete level at all tonight,” Gagne said.
“We thought we had them prepared, but then we came out and played a game like this and there is no reason for it.
“We couldn’t make a pass. There were three of us on the down low and we couldn’t even get the puck out. I am going to call it a dog day. That’s all it is, a dog day. We had been riding a nice little wave and it was a lot of fun. Even on Sunday, when we were fatigued, we still persevered. Tonight, we had nothing mentally.”
The night started out on a positive note for the Rock, as Cory Sprague netted his fifth goal of the season with the man advantage just 2:28 into the contest.
The Crunch tied things up close to seven minutes later when Brandon McReynolds scored his sixth goal of the season and then Braedan Cross potted his seventh goal of the season to provide the visitors with their first lead, 2-1.
Bain Cunningham scored his first goal of the season 55 seconds later to deadlock the game, but that would the Crunch pulled in front 3-2 before the first intermission on Cross’ second of the night and eighth of the season.
Defenceman Lucas Robinson scored his first goal of the season early in the second period to put the visitors in front by a pair of goals and spell the end of Rock starting goalie Matthew Nixon’s night.
Caleb Barris came on in relief, but he did not fare much better.
Konnor Dechaine beat Barris for his eighth goal of the season midway through the second period to make it a 5-2 hockey game.
Defenceman Jared Hester provided the Rock fans with a flicker of hope when he scored his fifth goal of the season at the 12:53 mark, but the Crunch responded with two more goals to pull in front 7-3 after 40 minutes of play.
Tyler Falk scored his first goal of the season less than two minutes after Hester’s goal and then Darrian Harris netted his third goal of the season with just over two minutes to play in the frame.
Crunch captain Connor Lovie beat Barris for his second goal of the season, a power-play marker, late in the third period to close out the scoring and make the final 8-3 in favour of the visitors.
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard was pleased with the outcome of Wednesday night’s contest.
“We worked hard tonight and you could tell our speed and our skill were just way too much for them to handle,” he said.
“They looked a little sloppy back there defensively, especially on the one-on-ones and stuff. We just took advantage of that all game. Our guys were driving to the net hard.
“The first period was just sloppy, with penalty after penalty for both teams. At the end of the day, everybody knows the Cochrane Crunch have always had a great penalty kill and we can score goals while we are killing penalties, too.
“If a team wants to run at us, try to hit us and suck us in we are still going to be able to play that kind of hockey. That’s the way Timmins plays us. Every game, they are always in the penalty box.”
Leonard agreed his team’s veteran blue-liners helped lessen the impact of the Rock’s aggressive forecheck Wednesday night.
“Even though we were missing big (Taylor) Armbruster back there tonight and (Zach) Anderson only played half the game, everybody did a good job,” he said.
“We have a goaltender (Leighton Williams) who can play the puck, as well, and that helps when you have a third man back there who can help get the puck up the ice for you.
“In addition, this year our forwards are coming back and helping out a lot more than they have in our first two years in Cochrane. They come back with speed and with a reason.”
Robinson, at 6-5 and 194 pounds, one of the biggest players in the NOJHL appears to have added some offensive flare to his game.
“He is a big body and last year he had a bit of baby fat on him,” Leonard said.
“He was a little chubby, being a young kid, but now he is a man and he has a lot more speed and his conditioning is a lot better.
“We noticed as soon as he stepped on the ice at training camp that he is a lot more confident.”
Leonard rolled four lines Wednesday night and he was happy with the performance of all of them.
“Even our fourth line, with (Timmins native Nathan) Curley, Falk and (Austin) Whelan, were buzzing all around the net,” he said.
“They worked hard.”
Neither Nixon nor Barris brought their A game Wednesday night, but Gagne was not about to place all of the blame on his goalies.
“We didn’t help them out at all tonight,” he said.
“They scored I don’t know how many goals from three feet in tonight. It was three-on-three down low and sometimes two-on-three down low and we weren’t taking a man.
“We have to work on our defensive zone coverage and we have to work on our down low coverage. We have to take our man. Tonight, we were really soft defensively and it showed, obviously.”
Gagne was able to find a few positives in Wednesday night’s game despite the final score and his team’s over all lack of effort.
“You look at the young (Stewart) Parnell,” he said.
“This was only his third game and for a young 17 year old, he is showing a lot of promise.
“And the young (Nicholas) Hway, who has not played too much and has been on the fourth line, got a lot of ice time and killed penalties tonight. He completed all of his assignments and he was sharp.
“(Alexandre) Brisson comes to play every night and takes the man. He does his job.
“Other than those guys, there is not much I can tell you about.”
Hester was limping considerably as he left the ice surface following the game with what Gagne described as a “lower-body injury.”
Williams stopped 25 of the 28 shots he faced to earn the victory.
Nixon, who turned aside 21 of the 25 shots he faced before getting the hook, was tagged with the loss for the Rock. Barris blocked 22 of the 26 shots the Crunch fired at him in relief.
NOJHL NOTES — The Rock did not dress forward Marcus Blackned (lower-body injury), forward/defenceman Kyle Levis (illness) and goalie Makaio Goods (healthy scratch) … The Rock went 1-4 on the power play, while the Crunch were 2-9 with the man advantage … The three stars were Cross, Robinson and McReynolds … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 590 … Wednesday’s other NOJHL contest saw the Espanola Express roll over the Eagles 6-2 in the Sault, Mich. … The Crunch will return home to host the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Thursday night … The Rock will return to action on Wednesday night when they will travel to Iroquois Falls for a game against the Eskis at the Jus Jordan Arena. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.