By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – It’s Crunch time for the Rock as they set their sights on closing ground on Cochrane in the NOJHL’s East Division standings.
The Rock (22-9-3-0) will host the second-place Crunch (24-10-4-1) Thursday night at the McIntyre Arena before travelling to Cochrane for the second half of their home-and-home series Saturday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre.
Heading into the two-game series, the Crunch lead the Rock by six points, but Timmins has five games in hand.
Best-case scenario will find the Rock walking up Sunday morning with that gap narrowed to two points, with five games in hand. Worst-case scenario and they will find themselves trailing by 10 points, but still with five games in hand.
To say the Rock have had their struggles with the Crunch this season might be a bit of an understatement.
Both the Rock and the Crunch made a couple of moves in the days leading up to Tuesday’s roster freeze.
On Tuesday, the Rock acquired 20-year-old forward Dean Kiriacou (9, 2-1-3, 6) from the Brockville Braves, of the CCHL.
The 6-1, 203-pound Newmarkert native has also spent time this season with the Cumberland Grads (15, 1-3-4, 2), of the CCHL, and the Wellington Dukes (11, 0-1-1, 2), of the OJHL.
“He has got some size and he has put up some great numbers in the past,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“He is the type of player we should be able to use on any line. As a 20 year old, he is going to come in with some experience and provide some leadership, which we already have, but he is going to add to our program.”
The Rock, of course, have had pretty good luck with another former Brave, Jacob Shankar (29, 14-18-32, 19), this season.
“It would be nice to get the same kind of impact from Kiriacou, but I think he might have even more impact given that he is a 20 year old,” Gagne said.
“He is the type of player who is going to do everything he can to win games. He is going to go into the corners and work hard. Hopefully, he is going to be able to score some goals for us.”
Kiriacou was scheduled to arrive in Timmins Wednesday, but his arrival might be delayed by the winter weather.
“He is driving up and due to the storm, I am not sure if he is going to be able to make it today,” Gagne said.
It remains to be seen if he will be in the lineup for Thursday night’s game at the McIntyre Arena, or if he will make his debut in a Rock uniform Saturday night in Cochrane.
There has been a delay, as well, with the arrival of the other player acquired by the Rock.
The Rock acquired Maxime Laguë (4, 0-0-0, 4) from the La Ronge Ice Wolves, of the SJHL, on Jan. 5.
“Max had some family issues,” Gagne said.
“His father was in the hospital, so he had to stick around home a little bit. We are hoping he will be here by the end of the week.”
Laguë, a 19-year-old St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., native also spent time this season with the Alexandria Glens (3, 0-0-0, 0), of the CCHL.
At 6-3 and 201 pounds, he should provide an injection of size and strength into the lineup, as well.
“When it comes to playing against some of the bigger teams in the league, we have our speed and we have our skills, but sometimes it wears you down,” Gagne said.
“Our style of play, a lot of it is in the offensive zone. It will become really strategic who we have in the lineup for these games. Maxime and Dean will add that element to our lineup.”
The Rock have also parted ways with goalie Matthew Nixon, who was unhappy with his playing time, will go with the tandem of Albert Rogers (614:00, 5-3-2-0, 0, 3.13, .912, with Rock; 1,159:00, 6-10-3-1, 0, 3.99, .906 overall) and Jeff Veitch (129:00, 1-0-1-0, 4.18, .870, with Rock; 599:00, 4-2-1-1, 0 3.40, .885) in net.
The Crunch also made a move with their goaltending, acquiring Taylor Unruh from the Espanola Express on Jan. 5 to back up workhorse Leighton Williams (1,327:00, 15-6-1-0, 2.71, .915), while saying goodbye to Jacob Burhans, who had beaten the Rock three times this season.
Unruh (60:00, 0-1-0-0, 0, 4.00, .889, with Crunch; 563:00, 1-9-0-0, 0, 5.01, .864, overall), a 20-year-old Regina native, has made one start so far with his new team.
Also on Jan. 5, the Crunch shipped big blue-liner Lucas Robinson (36, 2-10-12, 22) to the Dryden Ice Dogs, of the SIJHL, in exchange for 19-year-old defenceman Quinn Robelle (7, 0-5-5, 4).
Robelle is no stranger to the NOJHL, having started the season with the Elliot Lake Wildcats (30, 4-12-16, 16).
He also spent the 2015-16 season with the French River Rapids (53, 5-14-19, 41).
At 6-2 and 216 pounds, Robelle is a little smaller than the 6-5, 194-pound Robinson, but he also has more offensive upside.
On Tuesday, the Crunch dealt the rights to forward Sean Emmerson to the Soo Thunderbirds.
Cochrane has won four of the five games they have played against the Rock so far this season.
The two teams have split the first two games at the McIntyre Arena, with the Crunch taking an 8-3 decision back on Sept. 28 and the Rock prevailing 5-2 on Nov. 23.
Both games played at the Tim Horton Event Centre to date have resulted in two-goal victories for the home side — 6-4 on Dec. 21 and 7-5 on Dec. 2.
In addition, the Crunch doubled the Rock 4-2 in a game played in Sudbury as part of the NOJHL Showcase on Oct. 11, that technically counted as a home game for the Crunch.
Given that it is looking more and more like the Rock and the Crunch will face each other in the first round of the NOJHL playoffs, the Rock need to find a way to beat their rivals on a more consistent basis.
“For some reason, we never play our best against them,” Gagne said.
“It’s not that they make us play bad, but it seems we want to play a more offensive game against them.
“I think playing great defence would win games for us against them. By playing great defence, we would still get some great chances. If we can have a frame of mind where we concentrate on playing great defence, I think that is going to be the key to playing well against them.”
Instead of having his players try to do too much, Gagne wants them to embrace the philosophy that less is more.
“You are trying to score goals, you are trying to do too much offensively, but that’s not the key,” he said.
“The key is to be patient and play well defensively. We have the offence and the skills. We just have to be patient.”
Gagne is confident if his players stay patient and wait for their breaks, they can have better luck against the Crunch.
“We would like to get ahead of them in the standings,” he said.
“Right now, that’s our objective.”
Heading into Thursday night’s game, the only injury concern for the Rock is forward Cory Sprague (33, 16-13-29, 46), who missed Monday’s 8-3 victory over the French River Rapids.
“He is day-to-day right now,” Gagne said.
“He was on the ice for practice on Tuesday, but he was wearing a red sweater so that nobody would hit him.”