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Familiar foes face off

thomas perryBy Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)

COCHRANE – For the third-straight year, the Timmins Rock and Cochrane Crunch will tangle in the NOJHL playoffs.

During the first two encounters, the Rock were known as the Abitibi Eskimos, while the Crunch were the Elliot Lake Bobcats for the initial battle.

Regardless of the crests on their jerseys, or the arenas and communities they have called home, the NOJHL playoffs just wouldn’t be the same without a clash between coach and general manager Paul Gagne’s Rock and coach and general manager Ryan Leonard’s Crunch.

During the 2015-14 playoffs, Gagne’s Eskimos dispatched Leonard’s Bobcats in seven games, while the 2014-15 post season saw Leonard’s Crunch get past Gagne’s Eskimos in six games.

Game 1 in this year’s best-of-seven NOJHL East Division semifinal series goes Thursday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane, with the second game in the series also in Cochrane Saturday night before the teams renew their hostilities Tuesday night at the McIntyre Arena in Timmins for Game 3, with Game 4 to follow Thursday, March 24.

The Crunch took the season series from the Rock 6-2-0, winning six-straight after dropping the first two meetings of the season.

Statistically, the first-place Crunch (54, 40-10-2-2, 84) appear to have an edge over the fourth-place Rock (54, 29-24-0-1, 59) in most categories, as well.

The Crunch were No. 1 in the NOJHL in goals, with 298 on the season, while the Rock were third with 257.

Defensively, the Crunch were fourth in the league in goals given up, with 169, while the Rock surrendered 219 goals, to rank eighth.

The Crunch (27, 22-3-1-1, 46) only lost three times in regulation at the Tim Horton Event Centre this season, while the Rock (27, 18-9-0-0, 36) also had a solid record at the McIntyre Arena.

On the road, the Crunch (27, 18-7-1-1, 38) boast numbers almost as impressive as their home record, while the Rock (27, 11-15-0-1, 23) struggled away from the McIntyre Arena.

Special teams are always important in the playoffs and the Crunch (61 goals, 24.8%, 4th) and the Rock (61 goals, 22.4%, sixth) were both efficient with the man advantage.

Their records are similar on the penalty kill, as well, with the Crunch (53 goals allowed, 81.0%, fifth) having a slight advantage over the Rock (56 goals allowed, 79.0%, sixth).

The Crunch with a differential of 18 shorthanded goals and eight against can be equally dangerous on the penalty kill, while the Rock (seven for, 12 against) clearly need to be carefully while they are on the power play.

Crunch players served a total of 799 penalty minutes during the regular-season, while Rock players spent 759 minutes in the sin bin.

The record of the two teams in the last 10 games of the regular season clearly shows the Crunch (7-3-0-0) were the hotter than the Rock (3-7-0-0) entering the post season.

Given the familiarity the two teams have with each other, it would be hard to imagine there is much one does not know about the other.

“It’s safe to say Paul and I are getting tired of seeing each other in the playoffs,” Leonard said.

“Despite the records of the two teams during the regular-season, our team is not going into the series overconfident.

“They have four or five players from the Top 15 scorers in the league. The have got lots of offence and the way I look at things, they have been playing for nothing since Christmas. They had been in fourth place and they knew they were going to finish in third place.

“Our team, Kirkland Lake and Powassan have been battling since Christmas to finish in top spot. So really, they haven’t had a lot of motivation, in my mind, for the last two months of the season.

“Now, they are playing for something and they have a lot of older veterans who have been around the league for two or three years. I am not going to go into this thing thinking it is going to be a cake walk, that’s for sure. I have too much respect for that whole organization.

“I know what they are capable of, so we have to go into this series ready and focused. If not, it could be the end of the line.”

While the Rock were busy sweeping the Iroquois Falls Eskis in two-straight games in Round 1 of the playoffs, the Crunch were sitting idle waiting for their post season to get underway.

“I don’t like where we are at right now, having 14 days off in a row,” Leonard said.

“Timmins is fresh, coming off a victory and they already have some playoff experience under their belts. Their blood is pumping and they are excited. To start the series, we are going to have to play catch up to match their intensity.”

Fans can expect to see the Crunch playing Crunch hockey when the series opens Thursday night.

“We are going to play our program, what we teach here, our transition, our fast speed, our shooting,” Leonard said.

“We are going to play the way our team has always played for the last eight years I have been coaching Junior ‘A’ hockey. We are going to play an up-tempo style and keep it entertaining.”

The Crunch have been busy using their down time to prepare for the start of the series.

“Last week, was a little bit more relaxed with some guys getting some rest, having some fun practices,” Leonard said.

“This week, we have gotten down to business. We have been having some structured practices and doing some hard work. We have been working on some systems and getting prepared for Thursday night.”

Leonard feels discipline is going to be a key to the outcome of the best-of-seven series.

“If you go back and you look at the last couple of games we played against Timmins, I think they only had one five-on-five goal,” he said.

“They have scored some power-play goals against us but five-on-five, we have been dominant against them. We have also scored some shorthanded goals against them when they were on the power play.”

Goaltending — with the key match up being the Rock’s Logan Ferrington against the Crunch’s Brett Young — will be another key to the series.

“Brett is playing at the top of his game right now and after watching Ferrington on Sunday night (3-1 series clinching win over the Eskis), it looks like he is at the top of his game, as well,” Leonard said.

“If not, Iroquois Falls might have won that game on Sunday. Both goalies appear to be focused and ready and it is going to be an entertaining series.”

Heading into the series, Gagne feels all of the pressure is on the Crunch.

“They had more points, more victories and they finished in first place,” he said.

“They received some accolades (NOJHL awards and all-star recognition) for a few of their players. The limelight is all on them, not on us.”

And you get the feeling that’s just the way the veteran coaches wants it.

“They have to put on a show,” Gagne said.

“We are just going to go out there and play Timmins Rock hockey. We are the underdogs here and I kind of like that.”

The Rock may be the underdogs, but they have proven they can beat the Crunch this season — even in their own building.

“Every game that we have lost this year, we lost them, meaning we gave the puck away, we didn’t do the correct assignment, we made the mistakes,” Gagne said.

“We have the ability to beat anybody in the league, as long as we play our game and eliminate our mistakes. We just have to play within our program.

“I believe we can beat any team in this league and I know the players believe it, too.”

Starting on the road, the Rock know all they have to do is go into Cochrane and steal one of those first two games to put themselves in the driver’s seat.

“The first game is going to be really important,” Gagne said.

“They have just been sitting around, while we had a tough battle in the first round against Iroquois Falls.”

Like Leonard, Gagne feels discipline is going to be a key in the series given the high-powered offences both teams can ice.

“You have two teams that can score goals, with incredible power plays, so we are going to have to stay out of the box,” he said.

“We are going to have to make sure we don’t lose our composure, just stay within our game plan and stay focused. If we work hard and give it 110% effort, things will work out.”

Large crowds are expected at both the Tim Horton Event Centre and the McIntyre Arena for this series and Leonard stresses that all Timmins fans travelling up to Cochrane for the games will be accommodated.

“Nobody will be turned away,” he said.

Game time for both Game 1 and Game 2 of the series Thursday and Saturday in Cochrane is 7:30 p.m.

 

Feb. 24: Crunch 5 Rock 4

Game-winning goal: Hunter Atchison

Goalies: Crunch, Brett Young; Rock, Devon Debastos

Feb. 9: Rock 2 Crunch 8

Game-winning goal: Jon Marzec

Goalies: Rock, Logan Ferrington; Crunch, Brett Young

Jan. 23: Crunch 4 Rock 3

Game-winning goal: Jon Marzec

Goalies: Crunch, Brett Young; Rock, Matthew Nixon

Jan. 22: Rock 7 Crunch 10

Game-winning goal: Aviv Milner

Goalies: Rock, Logan Ferrington; Crunch, Brett Young, Allan Menary

Jan. 9: Rock 3 Crunch 5

Game-winning goal: Jeremy McNeil

Goalies: Rock, Matthew Nixon; Crunch, Brett Young

Dec. 12: Crunch 5 Rock 2

Game-winning goal: Jeran Knorr

Goalies: Crunch, Allan Menary; Rock, Logan Ferrington

Nov. 26: Rock 4 Crunch 3

Game-winning goal: Zachary Kercz

Goalies: Rock, Logan Ferrington; Crunch, Brett Young, Allan Menary

Oct. 18 Crunch 5 Rock 6

Game-winning goal: Zachary Kercz

Goalies: Crunch, Brett Young; Rock, Logan Ferrington