By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will kick off the second half of their 2016-17 NOJHL schedule with a visit to the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex in Kirkland Lake Friday night.
It will be an opportunity for the Rock (21-9-2-0) to strengthen their hold on third place in the East Division standings and increase their advantage over the fourth-place Gold Miners (15-17-4-1).
Heading into the contest, the Rock lead the Gold Miners by nine points and they have five games in hand on their rivals.
The Rock lead the season series against the Gold Miners 4-1-1-0, but it has been a lot closer than that stat might suggest.
In fact, the last two meetings of the two teams have gone to double overtime before a winner could be decided.
Jacob Shankar’s 13th goal of the season proved to be the difference for the Rock when the two teams locked horns at the McIntyre Arena on Dec. 17, while Kevin Ford netted the game-winning goal for the Gold Miners the last time Timmins visited the Joe Mavrinac Community Centre on Dec. 3.
Former Gold Miners goalie Jeff Veitch made his only start so far in a Rock uniform in that contest and struggled early on in the 6-5 loss.
The Rock — even when the franchise was known as the Abitibi Eskimos and played out of the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls before its move to Timmins — has not had a lot of success at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex over the years.
They were able to overcome that trend during their first visit to Kirkland Lake this season back on Oct. 7, as they handed the Gold Miners a 5-3 setback — with Shankar again netting the game-winning goal.
“I think our forecheck and our D zone coverage is going to be the key,” Shankar said when asked what the Rock will have to do Friday night to continue their string of success against the Gold Miners this season.
“I think our speed is a factor, as well. We are just too quick for their D. We have a lot of fast guys like Matty (Wayne Mathieu) and Romes (Tyler Romain) who can get in there quickly and pressure their D.”
Shankar, a 17-year-old Prescott, Ont., native, earned honourable mention for rookie of the month when the NOJHL announced its Gongshow Gear awards for the month of December earlier this week.
The first-year forward feels it will be important for the Rock to get off to a good start Friday night so they can build upon the success they had during the first half of the season.
“Hopefully, we will be able to get the first goal against the Gold Miners so we can get rolling again,” Shankar said.
Rock assistant coach James Daschuk put his squad through intense practices both Tuesday and Wednesday in hopes of working off any rust that might have resulted from the team’s lengthy Christmas break.
“Our first session was obviously a little bit slow,” he said.
“Being off the ice for a couple of weeks, you tend to get out of shape a little bit.”
Defenceman Spencer Segui, who missed the last couple of games prior to the Christmas break after taking a puck in the mouth and losing and/or breaking four teeth and requiring dental surgery, was the only player not back in town as of Wednesday night and he was expected to report soon.
“I don’t know what his status is going to be for the weekend, but he hasn’t skated in a while,” Daschuk said.
“I don’t imagine he is going to be anywhere near game shape.”
Fellow blue-liner Jared Hester, who had been out with an upper-body injury, has been practising all week and is expected to be in the lineup Friday night.”
Both the Rock and the Gold Miners ended the first halves of their 2016-17 campaigns with two-goal losses to the Cochrane Crunch.
Timmins dropped a 6-4 decision to the Crunch on Dec. 21 in Cochrane, while the Gold Miners suffered a 5-3 loss on home ice on Dec. 18.
Despite that setback, the Rock (5-3-2-0) had been playing some pretty decent hockey in the 10 games leading up to the NOJHL’s Christmas break.
The Gold Miners (2-6-2-0) not so much.
That is one of the reasons the Gold Miners opted to make a number of changes prior to the Dec. 10 trade deadline including shipping out both of their goalies (Veitch and Victor-Olivier Courchesne) and bring in a pair of new puck stoppers — Ridge Gerads (312:00, 1-3-1-0, 0, 4.42, .888) and Allan Menary (137:00, 1-0-1-0, 0, 3.06, .917).
Meanry, who was acquired in a Nov. 25 deal with the Stayner Siskins, of the PJHL, has NOJHL experience with both the Cochrane Crunch and the Elliot Lake Wildcats.
The Rock, of course, also revamped their goaltending prior to the deadline, bringing in Albert Rogers (554:00, 5-3-1-0, 0, 2.82, .921, with Rock; 1,099:00, 6-10-2-1, 0, 3.88, .910, overall) to be the starter and Veitch (69:00, 0-0-1-0, 5.21, .857, with Rock; 539:00, 3-2-1-1, 0, 3.45 .885) to compete with incumbent Matthew Nixon (773:00, 8-4-0-0, 3.96, .897) for playing time behind him.
Even though only one team — the French River Rapids, who visit the McIntyre Arena on Monday — has played fewer games than the Rock at the Christmas break, Timmins, with 170, continues to lead the NOJHL in scoring.
While most teams in the NOJHL rely on two lines for scoring, the Rock have three lines — captain Jordan Rendle (32, 22-20-42, 50), Mathieu (30, 14-16-30, 14) and Cory Sprague (32, 16-13-29, 46); Romain (32, 22-20-42, 25), Bain Cunningham (32, 12-29-41, 35) and Shankar (27, 13-17-30, 17); and Stewart Parnell (30, 5-26-31, 12), Cole Gilligan (32, 16-13-29, 2) and Alexandre Brisson (30, 12-14-26, 26) — capable of putting the puck in the net with great regularity.
The Rock have also been getting solid contributions from their blue-line corps — Segui (29, 4-19-23, 26), Hester (28, 8-10-18, 36), Brendan Campbell (28, 2-13-15, 50), Nicholas Hautanen (31, 6-8-14, 30), Patrick Gazich (18, 3-11-14, 14), James Watier (19, 2-9-11, 10) and Grant McClellan (32, 3-2-5, 32) — this season, as well.
With only 20 players — three of whom are goaltenders — on their active roster, the Rock are continuing to look for a few reinforcements prior to the Jan. 10 roster freeze.
“(Rock coach and general manager) Paul (Gagne) is still working the phones,” Daschuk said.
“We are kind of in an agreement with a guy right now, but nothing can be confirmed yet. So, it looks like we have added one guy and we are hopefully going to bring in two more, as well.”
With 135 goals on the season, the Gold Miners rank seventh in the NOJHL in scoring this season.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t have some players capable of supplying offence.
Ford (37, 23-22-45, 32) is a solid sniper and Ashton Amaya (37, 17-19-36, 26), Tyler Fyfe (37, 12-24-36, 14), Alex Storjohann (27, 11-23-34, 36), William Mizuik (33, 14-15-29, 4), Stavros Soilis (29, 9-9-18, 10), defenceman T.J. Oricchio (37, 1-17-18, 16), Matthew Brassard(37, 9-8-17, 18), defenceman Austin Anselmo (22, 6-10-16, 14) and Kirkland Lake native Marshal Nikitin(23, 6-10-16, 14) are all having solid campaigns.
Special teams are always an important factor in any NOJHL game and that is especially true when the Rock and the Gold Miners clash.
Heading into Friday night’s contest, the Rock are second in the league with a power-play efficiency rating of 22.1%, trailing only the Powassan Voodoos (22.9%), while the Gold Miners, at 16.9%, are ninth.
After sitting in the middle of the pack for most of the season, the Rock penalty kill has climbed up to fourth, with a success rate of 82.4%. The Gold Miners, with a success rate of 80.9%, find themselves in seventh place.
“Tomorrow (Thursday) we are going to spend some time in practice working on the power play and the penalty kill,” Daschuk said.
“We just want to make sure we get our focus back and go over our D zone coverage, our three-on-three down low, that kind of stuff that we have been preaching all year.
“I don’t think you have to be a hockey guy to realize that if you score goals on the power play and don’t allow goals on the penalty kill, you are going to win hockey games. That’s obvious.”
The Gold Miners lead the NOJHL with 11 shorthanded goals this season, while the Rock are fifth with five.
“I don’t think we are going to change anything on our power play because of that,” Daschuk said.
“Maybe that just means they cheat a little bit more on the offence, or they do something a little bit different. It’s not something we have really noticed from them, but it is in the back of our minds.
“If they cheat, we are going to try and take advantage. If they are scoring that many goals on the PK, it is kind of risk and reward.”
Strangely, the Gold Miners have surrendered six shorthanded goals this season, tied for second most in the league, while the Rock have given up four, tied with sixth most.
Friday night’s game is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m.