Game 1: Rock host Eskis

thomas perryBy Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)

TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock and the Iroquois Falls Eskis have been busy preparing for their best-of-three Round 1 NOJHL playoff series set to open at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night and continue at the Jus Jordan Arena Sunday evening.

Having faced each other 10 times during the regular season, there is likely little either team does not know about the other at this point.

The Rock (54, 29-24-0-1,59), who finished fourth in the East Division have home ice advantage on the Eskis (54, 15-39-0-0, 30), with Game 3 — if necessary — to be played at the McIntyre Arena Wednesday night.

Statistically speaking, the Rock would appear to have a distinct advantage in just about every category: More wins (29-15), more goals for (257-163), fewer goals against (219-310), better home record (18-9-0-0 to 9-18-0-0), better road record (11-15-0-1 to 6-21-0-0), better power play (32 goals, 22.9% to 21 goals, 14.9%), better penalty kill (29 goals against, 77.9% to 45 goals against, 63.1%), fewer shorthanded goals surrendered, 7-12) and better head-to-head record (7-3).

The only statistics that seems to favour the Eskis is shorthanded goals scored (5-2).

Amazingly, the two squads have served an almost an identical number of penalty minutes this season: Timmins 259, Iroquois Falls 258.

Neither team can really be considered red hot heading into the playoffs, as they both sported records of 3-7-0-0 in the final 10 games of the regular season.

Both Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne and his counterpart in Iroquois Falls, Corey Bricknell feel their squad is confident and ready heading into the start of the series Saturday night.

“We are just going to have to get back to basics and keep things simple and not put too much pressure on ourselves,” Gagne said.

“We just have to go out there and play our game. That’s what we have been talking about and working on in practice.

“We just have to go out there and apply pressure on them, get our forecheck going and get that commitment of playing well in our defensive zone going. We need to spend less time in our defensive zone and more time in the neutral zone and the offensive zone.

“We need to take a lot of shots on net and get a presence in front of their net.

“It’s just playoff hockey, finish your checks and elevate your game.”

The Eskis won two of the last three games the NOJHL East Division teams played against each other, limiting the time and space of Rock forwards and getting some pretty outstanding goaltending.

“The last game we played against them, we lost 4-2 and their goalie (Matthew Camilleri) stood on his head,” Gagne said.

“We had more chances during that game in Iroquois Falls than we did the game before (a 9-2 home-ice win over the Eskis two days earlier). The big difference was their goaltender. I thought we dominated that game and I thought we had great opportunities.”

In a short series, goaltending can be a big factor.

Overall, Logan Ferrington (1,997:00, 20-13-1, 3.94, 1, .900) got the bulk of the starts in net for the Rock this season, but Matthew Nixon (920:00, 8-7-0, 0, 3.78, .898) was in net for three of their seven wins against the rivals and Devon Debastos (213:00, 0-3-0, 0, 5.08, .870) also saw action against the Eskis.

Iroquois Falls, meanwhile, counter with the duo of Joe Sheppard (1,174:00, 4-17-0, 0, 5.62, .881) and Camilleri (663:00, 4-6-0, 0, 5.70, .880).

Again, statistically the Rock would appear to have an advantage, but both Sheppard and Camilleri are capable of pulling off an upset when you least expect it.

“Even at the NHL level, you have to worry about running into a hot goaltender, but we have faced these goalies before and put the puck in the net more often than they did,” Gagne said.

“As long as we are sharp and make things happen, things will be positive. The puck will end up in the net.”

The edge is not quite so noticeable on the blue-line, with the Rock D featuring Kealey Cummings, Andrew Castagna, Joe Olson, Brennan McGuire, Nicholas Hautanen, Ryan Kerr, Spencer Segui and Jared Hester, while the Eskis counter with Josh Dejulio, Jacob Herrberg, Stuart Harley, Kyle Sutherland, Zack Lund, and Kevin Lanoix.

The Rock unit is slightly faster and has more offensive flair, while the Eskis group features more grit and sandpaper — qualities that have great appeal during playoff games.

When it comes to firepower upfront, you have to give the Rock offence — featuring Zachary Kercz (53, 26-55-81, 90), Tristan Salesse (43, 34-41-75, 18), Jordan Rendle (51, 30-40-70, 67), Bain Cunningham (53, 25-33-58, 48), Ryan Theriault (48, 21-25-46, 38), Aaron Kerr (22, 17-21-38, 6) and Landen Matechuk (15, 7-15-22, 14) — a big edge.

The Eskis have struggled to find consistent secondary scoring beyond the trio of David Osborne (53, 34-32-66, 43), Jacob Erwin (54, 26-34-60, 24) and Tanner Bowditch (53, 16-27-43, 26) for much of the season, although rookies Dillan Bruce (48, 11-8-19, 24) and Shadow Reuben (51, 9-10-19, 38), as well as Blake Holowaty (25, 4-16-20, 41), who moved back to the blue-line late in the year, showed potential, as well.

Bricknell knows that if the Eskis can match the results of their final three regular-season meeting with the Rock, they will be advance to a Round 2 match-up with the Cochrane Crunch.

“We just have to go out and play a solid 60 minutes and stick with our game plan for the entire game,” he said.

“We have to pay attention to the game plan and not get caught up in the emotion.”

That will likely be easier for the Eskis and their coaching staff than for the team’s fans who are still bitter about the former Abitibi Eskimos leaving Iroquois Falls to set up shop in Timmins, as the Rock.

“During all the games we have played in Timmins this year, we have had good attendance from our fans and I don’t think that is going to change during the playoffs,” Bricknell said.

“We always seem to get a good draw at home when we play Timmins and Timmins seems to get a good draw in their barn when we play there.”

The Eskis won’t be intimidated opening the playoffs on the road in front of potentially large crowd at the McIntyre Arena.

“I am not sure if it is an advantage, but it is an opportunity for us to take control of the series,” Bricknell said.

“We have to win in Timmins (in Game 1 or Game 3) to move on, so we are going to be ramped up and ready to go.

The Eskis have had a little bit more time to focus on the start of the series than the Rock, who finished up their regular season with a 6-1 home-ice loss to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners Wednesday night.

“We have been working on our power play and our defensive zone coverage,” Bricknell said.

“Those are the kinds of things you always need to work on. We have been off for a week, so we have been trying to place as many game situations and scenarios in practice to try and keep the goalies moving in the crease, that kind of stuff.

“We have been trying to keep the intensity up during our practices, so that when we play tomorrow night, we are actually ready.

Like the Rock, the Eskis have fine tuned their roster as the season progressed with the ultimate goal of being able to ice the best team possible during the playoffs.

“We have had some rookies who have stepped up this year and who are taking a larger role in the game,” Bricknell said.

“And our leaders have been consistent all year. I like the four line combinations we have right now.”

Fans wanting to know what line combinations the Rock and the Eskis will use in Game 1, or who will be between the pipes for both squads might as well ask about the secret ingredients in their favourite bucket of chicken or the meaning of life.

Both the Rock and the Eskis are completely healthy heading into Game 1 of the series and neither team has any suspensions to worry about either.

The puck is scheduled to drop at the McIntyre at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Regular-season results

Feb. 15: Rock 2 Eskis 4

Goalies — Rock: Logan Ferrington; Eskis: Matthew Camilleri.

Game-winning goal — Dillan Bruce.

Feb. 13: Eskis 2 Rock 9

Goalies — Eskis: Joe Sheppard, Matthew Camilleri; Rock: Logan Ferrington, Devon Debastos.

Game-winning goal — Aaron Kerr.

Jan. 10: Eskis 6 Rock 3

Goalies — Eskis: Joe Sheppard, Matthew Camilleri; Rock: Devon Debastos.

Game-winning goal — David Stickney.

Dec. 4: Rock 5 Eskis 4

Goalies — Rock: Logan Ferrington; Eskis: Joe Sheppard.

Game-winning goal — Bain Cunningham.

Nov. 21: Rock 7 Eskis 2

Goalies — Rock: Logan Ferrington; Eskis: Joe Sheppard.

Game-winning goal — Bain Cunningham.

Nov. 11: Eskis 4 Rock 7

Goalies — Rock: Matthew Nixon; Eskis: Joe Sheppard.

Game-winning goal — Bain Cunningham.

Oct. 21: Eskis 2 Rock 10

Goalies — Rock: Matthew Nixon; Eskis: Dan Davies, Joe Hacker.

Game-winning goal — Devin Panzecca.

Oct. 4: Rock 6 Eskis 2

Goalies — Rock: Matthew Nixon; Eskis: Josh Horner.

Game-winning goal — Tyler Romain.

Sept. 23: Eskis 1 Rock 8

Goalies — Eskis: Josh Horner, Dan Davies; Rock: Logan Ferrington.

Game-winning goal — Josh Rendle.

Sept. 16: Rock 6 Eskis 8

Goalies — Rock: Logan Ferrington; Eskis: Dan Davies, Josh Horner.

Game-winning goal — Brett Ouderkirk.