The Timmins Rock skated to a convincing 5-1 win over the Lumberjacks at the Claude Larose Arena Friday night.
It allowed the Rock (15-2-1-0) to keep pace with the Powassan Voodoos (15-3-3-1) in the battle for top spot in the NOJHL’s East Division and overall standings.
And while the Rock continue to trail the Voodoos, who rallied to defeat the visiting Cochrane Crunch 4-2 Friday night, they have four games in hand on Powassan.
The West Division-leading Soo Thunderbirds (14-4-1-2) also have 31 points, but the Rock have three games in hand on them.
Heading into the contest, the Rock had a solid plan and the players went out and executed it to near perfection.
“We just kept things really simple and played a solid road game,” said Rock coach and general manager Brandon Perry, back behind the bench after serving the two game suspension he picked up following a 4-2 loss to the Rapids in French River on Nov. 5.
“We got pucks out of our end quick and executed on face-off plays in our own end. We exited (the defensive zone) and created odd-man rushes.
“Any time you can get a two-on-one situation from right in front of your goalie is pretty good.”
Things didn’t start off well for the Rock in Hearst Friday night, as the Lumberjacks got on the scoreboard first, with Raphael Lajeunesse netting his 10th goal of the season at the 8:25 mark of the opening period.
“I thought our start was a little slow, but overall we just played a good, simple road game,” Perry said.
The Rock got back on even terms exactly three minutes later, with Tyler Gilberds scoring a power-play marker, his seventh goal of the season.
The game remained deadlocked at 1-1 heading into the first intermission but the Rock took command of the contest with a pair of unanswered second-period goals.
Blue-liner Cameron Dutkiewicz scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal, his fifth tally of season and the Rock’s second power-play marker of the night one second shy of the midway point in the frame.
A 20-year-old Timmins native, Dutkiewicz (18, 5-15-20, 13), who added a pair of assists, now ranks second to only Soo Thunderbirds blue-liner Andrew Gibson (15, 11-10-21, 12) in scoring among NOJHL D-men.
“He was fantastic tonight, very, very good,” Perry said.
“He was just great defensively and obviously he is here to produce and that’s what he did.
“I was extremely happy with the way he played without the puck tonight, as well.
“He played a simple, strong game. He is a big, physical kid and he was bumping guys.
“You look at the sheet and he chipped in with three points, so obviously he did his job offensively, but I was really happy with the way he played defence tonight.”
Justin Charette then increased the Rock advantage to 3-1 when he added his fifth goal of the season four-and-a-half minutes later.
Midway through the third period, blue-liner Tanner Hamilton netted his fourth goal of the season to put the Rock in front by three goals.
And Henry Brock added his fourth goal of the season just over four minutes later to close out the scoring and make the final count 5-1 in favour of the Rock.
Riley Brousseau (18, 7-17-24, 6) picked up three assists for the Rock in Friday night’s contest and he has quietly taken over the team lead in scoring and he is tied for sixth in the NOJHL race with Lumberjacks forward Zachary Demers (18, 5-19-24, 16).
“He has just been absolutely fantastic since joining us in the summer, deciding to play his 20-year-old year here (in Timmins), at home,” Perry said.
“He has been consistently good every single night. We were talking as a staff, looking back on his games during the season and he has been a consummate pro, the way he approaches every day.
“He has always been good in practice, always good in games. I can’t say I am surprised. I am happy with the way he has been playing and I am super happy for him.”
That said, the coach admitted he was a little surprised when he checked the stats to find Brousseau has taken over as the Rock’s leading scorer.
“I didn’t even know he was leading our team in scoring, but I am not surprised,” Perry said.
“He does things right day-in and day-out. He is a quiet leader and he just goes about his business.”
A third Timmins native, Charette, also impressed his coach during the contest.
“He is a complete player,” Perry said.
“His mind for the game makes him so effective and I just thought he had one of those nights tonight.
“He jumped up and played on the first unit on the power play, got an assist and chipped in with a goal.
“He is a young kid, but he has been coming along nicely. He is a sponge and he learns and he listens.
“I really enjoy coaching him.”
The coach clearly wasn’t surprised to get key contributions from three local players Friday night.
“It makes me super happy and makes me feel really good,” Perry said.
“It makes me feel really good about the work we are doing locally.
“Growing up in Timmins, this rivalry with Hearst isn’t new to them. It probably started in Novice (now U9), when they were playing rep hockey.”
There was no shortage of other Rock players who caught their coach’s eye Friday night.
“(Goalie) Gavin McCarthy was absolutely fantastic,” Perry said.
“(Blue-liner) Tanner Hamilton was a beast all night. He must have blocked four or five shots.
“He is always steady back there. You never say Hammer wasn’t at his best tonight.
“He brings it every single night. He is a 20 year old who has been around.
“Tyler Patterson was out there blocking shots in a 5-1 game, as well. We talk about championship habits and that was good to see right there.
“Henry Brock was great. He was all over in front of the net and found a way to put one in there at the end.
“Our captain (Tyler Schwindt), every single night, and I thought Tyler Gilberds has been playing the best hockey I have seen him play in four years.
“Up and down the lineup, Liam Wells, brought a lot of energy, a lot of jump and we got some minutes from Bradley Moore, who is an AP (affiliate player).”
If the Rock are to achieve their goal of winning an NOJHL championship and advancing to the Dudley Hewitt Cup, they are likely going to have to get past the Lumberjacks and/or the Voodoos at some point in the playoffs, so proving they can win games at the Claude Larose Arena is important.
“That was the test tonight, to find a way to win in that building,” Perry said.
“It just adds to our confidence, knowing we can do it. This building has haunted our program in the past, so this is a good step.
“We have a long way to go, but this definitely adds to our confidence.”
McCarthy stopped 23 of the 24 shots he faced to earn his 12th win of the season.
Lumberjacks goalie Liam Oxner, who turned aside 33 of the 38 shots the Rock directed his way, was tagged with the loss.
NOJHL NOTES — The three stars of the game were Dutkiewicz, Brousseau and Charette … Rock forward Nicolas Pigeon sat out the contest, serving the fourth game of a four-game suspension he picked up after being assessed a five-minute major for kneeing during an 8-2 win over the Crunch on Nov. 5 … The Rock went 2-5 on the power play, while the Lumberjacks were 0-5 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Claude Larose Arena was 419 … Friday’s other action saw the Voodoos double up the Cochrane Crunch 4-2 in Powassan, the French River Rapids hang on to edge the Gold Miners 4-3 in Kirkland Lake, the Eagles derail the Espanola Express 6-2 in Sault, Mich., and Thunderbirds dump the Elliot Lake Red Wings 3-2 in Sault Ste. Marie … The Rock will return to action on Sunday when they host the Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena, at 3 p.m.