By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
IROQUOIS FALLS – The Timmins Rock swept the Eskis from the playoffs Sunday night, but not before the determined home side put up a valiant battle at the Jus Jordan Arena.
After winning Game 1 of the best-of-three Round 1 series Saturday night at the McIntyre Arena, the Rock threw up an almost-impenetrable wall around goalie Logan Ferrington Sunday night, en route to a 3-1 victory.
The visitors outshot the Eskis 16-11 during the opening 20 minutes and jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Joe Olson power-play goal late in the frame.
Eskis goalie Joe Sheppard made a number of big saves to keep the Rock from increasing their lead in the first period.
Zachary Kercz added a second power-play marker — his third goal of the playoffs — early in the second period to expand the Rock advantage to 2-0.
That would prove to be the game-winning and series-deciding goal.
“I just got my body in front of the net on our power play,” Kercz said.
“They were doing a good job shutting down our outside passing lanes, so I just kind of crashed the net. I was in front and it just kind of hit my stick and went in, I didn’t really do too much.”
The Aurora, Ont., native who led the Rock in scoring during the regular season didn’t feel the Rock did anything different than they had 24 hours earlier during Saturday night’s 8-1 win.
“Their goalie (Sheppard) stood on his head,” Kercz said.
“I have to give him a lot of credit. He played great tonight. We kept to the same game plan we had last night. I thought the boys played another full 60 minutes tonight.
“We didn’t get as many pucks in the net as we did last night, but we still score more than them.”
The Rock showed marked improvement in their defensive zone coverage during the first two games of the playoffs, giving up just two goals in those contests.
“You look at the month leading up to the playoffs and we were letting in a lot of goals,” Kercz said.
“The playoffs are a new season though and everyone is on the same page now. Everyone, even the forwards, is playing a good defensive game and it is going to win us games in the playoffs.”
The Eskis were finally able to break through the Rock’s tight defensive zone coverage to get on the scoreboard midway through the second period.
Captain David Osborne converted a cross-crease pass to cut the visitors’ advantage to 2-1 and give the home fans a little bit of hope.
Again, the Eskis were outshot 18-13 in the second period, but Sheppard continued to shine keeping the deficit at just one goal heading into the final period.
With their playoff lives on the line, the Eskis ramped up their intensity even higher in the third period, but they could not find a chink in Ferrington’s armour.
The home side had one final golden opportunity to get back on even terms when Rock defenceman Nicholas Hautanen was sent off for interference with 1:04 remaining in regulation.
The Eskis pulled Sheppard in favour of an extra attacker to create a two-man advantage, but despite creating a number of excellent scoring opportunities in the final minute they could not get the equalizer.
Then, Rock penalty killer Wayne Mathieu blocked a pass at his team’s blue-line and outraced a pair of Eskis defenders to the puck which had bounced behind them and deposited a shorthanded goal into the empty Eskis’ net to secure the victory and clinch the series.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne, not a fan of Round 1, best-of-three format, was happy to see his squad once again stake a claim on fourth spot in the East Division.
“Finally, we finished in fourth place for the second time,” he said.
“I want that in frigging bold letters.”
Gagne was especially happy with the Rock players’ focus on their defensive responsibilities in the series.
“During practice, we worked on our defensive zone coverage,” he said.
“We worked on our three-on-three down low coverage, making sure they were taking their man and coming back and helping out.”
Despite only scoring three goals, the Rock generated plenty of opportunities Sunday night.
“We didn’t capitalize on our chances,” Gagne said.
“It was a game where we weren’t under the gun or under pressure. We were really calm and under control, I guess you could say. We played extremely well and we had guys, like Brennan McGuire, who were blocking shots. He had two huge blocks at the end of the game.”
Gagne was impressed by the fact that they Eskis never showed any quit Sunday night.
“They never died, they worked hard and they have every opportunity to win,” he said.
“They had some great chances, but we made some great blocks and Logan did his job back there. He was an unsung hero.”
The coach was also impressed with the play of forward Landen Matechuk in the contest, as well as Olson and Andrew Castagna on the blue-line.
“He was relentless on the forecheck,” Gagne said.
“He was making things happen and I think he had nine or 10 hits.
“Joe Olson just does his job out there. He came through for us on the power play. He got a good shot on net and it made a difference.
“Castagna also just does his job out there and nobody pays attention to him. He moves the puck and plays well defensively and it makes a difference on our team. It really does.”
The Eskis were given a standing ovation from the appreciative fans in the stands following the game and there was a lot of emotion inside and outside the team’s dressing room.
Hugs were exchanged and tears shed as the realization that their season was over began to set in and that a number of those in their group — including 20 year olds Sheppard, Matthew Camilleri, Tanner Bowditch, Jacob Erwin and Marco Luciani — would never don an Eskis jersey again, unless it is in an alumni game.
“I have been coaching now for eight years, but I have never seen a more tight-knit group,” said Eskis assistant coach Jamy Bernier.
“These guys have something special in the locker room. We have been saying it all year. There is just a crazy bond between these guys.
“It is emotional to see these guys leave. It is going to be hard to not have some of these guys back next year. We have a huge core of guys coming back, so we can thrive on that but at the same time our 95s (birth year) are truly going to be missed.”
There is no doubt the Eskis gave 110% and left it all out on the ice.
“The effort was definitely there tonight,” Bernier said.
“Last night we talked about how we needed to get a full 60 minutes out of these guys and I think they gave us absolutely everything they could tonight. We couldn’t be more proud of these guys. We didn’t get the outcome we were looking for, but the boys gave us a full 60 minutes tonight.
“What was special is that we were able to do it by rolling every guy tonight. Everybody was going and giving us their 110%. That was huge for us, especially since some of these guys will be leaving us.”
Bernier agreed that Sheppard likely played his best game of the season when his team needed him the most.
“Joe put everything he had on the line tonight,” he said.
“He made some phenomenal stops. I can’t wait to watch Joe Sheppard play at the next level. I think he will be something great to watch.”
Which other Eskis caught Bernier’s eye Sunday night?
“We had 20 guys dressed tonight and I think all 20 of those guys stood out for me tonight. Everybody battled.
“Sam Vigneaux amazed me on the penalty kill tonight and Josh DeJulio was phenomenal.”
Ferrington stopped 38 of the 39 shots he faced to earn the victory for the Rock, while Sheppard blocked 46 of the 48 shots fired his way and was tagged with the loss.
NOJHL NOTES — The three stars of the game were Sheppard, Rock defenceman Castagna and Olson … The Rock went 2-5 on the power play, while the Eskis were 1/6 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Jus Jordan Arena was 474 … Game 1 of the best-of-seven East Division semifinal series between the Rock and the Crunch will be played Thursday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane. Game 2 will be played at the THEC Saturday night, with Games 3 & 4 back at the McIntyre Arena Tuesday night and Thursday, March 24.