By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock “don’t have their backs against the wall,” but another loss in their best-of-seven NOJHL East Division semi-final series against the Cochrane Crunch might place them in that very position.
When the puck drops on Game 3 of the series at the McIntyre Arena Tuesday night, the Rock will find themselves trailing 2-0.
After dropping the first two games of the series — 4-1 Thursday night and 12-2 Saturday night — the Rock will be looking to find a little redemption.
“It’s quite simple, really,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“Let’s just compete. During the last game, when we gave up five goals in the first five minutes of the first period, our compete level was not that great. What we need to do is just compete and play like we normally play at home.”
If the Rock are able to do that in Game 3 — and Game 4 Thursday night — the series could very well be tied at 2-2 heading back to Cochrane for Game 5 Saturday night.
If not, the Rock players and coaching staff might well find themselves looking to book tee times at any golf course not currently blanketed with snow.
“We know they won the first two games of the series at home, so now we have to win the next two games of the series at home,” Gagne said.
“It all starts tomorrow (Tuesday) night. We have to play our game, compete, finish our checks, forecheck, forecheck, forecheck. We need to stop them from making those long-bomb passes, get some shots on net and get some traffic in front of the net, you name it, stuff like that.”
To be successful, the Rock will need to take away the time and space that allowed the Crunch to freewheel during the first two games of the series.
“We really need to work on our forecheck,” Gagne said.
“They can’t make those passes if we forecheck well. The Crunch are a team that relies on scoring and we should be able to exploit their defensive abilities. We have to do that, we have to.”
The Crunch’s high powered attack has been led by defenceman Joey Mavrin (2, 2-4-6, 2), Jeremy McNeil (2, 0-6-6, 4), Dustin Cordeiro (2, 4-1-5, 4), Hunter Atchison (2, 3-1-4, 4), John Stevenson (2, 3-1-4, 0) and Aviv Milner (2, 0-4-4, 0) through the first two games of the series.
The Rock are no slouches when it comes to putting the puck in the net, either, with an attack that features Landen Matechuk (4, 1-4-5, 6), defenceman Joe Olson (4, 1-4-5, 14), Zachary Kercz (4, 3-1-4, 4) and Jordan Rendle (4, 2-2-4, 2), but they have only been able to put up three goals so far against the Crunch.
Who will the Rock be counting on to stand up and lead the charge Tuesday night?
“It is playoff hockey and our better players have to be our better players,” Gagne said.
“Our third line has to be better. Our goaltenders have to be better. We are 0-2, so we all have to get better. We are all going to have to put it on the table Tuesday night.”
The Rock will be looking at all costs to avoid falling behind 3-0 in the series, a hole which might prove too difficult to climb out of — for any team.
“We don’t have our backs against the wall, but this is a game that we really want to win,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have to play excellent hockey at home and do it right from the first game. We know we are capable of doing it.”
The physical dimensions of the McIntyre Arena — with its smaller neutral zone — are far different than the more spacious confines of the Tim Horton Event Centre, a fact that could help the Rock limit the time and space available for Crunch players.
“It is smaller and we have a team concept but individuals have to excel a little bit more, but that’s normal,” Gagne said.
“It doesn’t matter if we play in a bigger rink or a smaller rink, we have to play our game. If we can do that, it will make things a lot easier.”
In Game 1 of the series, the Rock gave up a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal to the Crunch, but in Game 2 their special teams truly were not-so-special, as they surrendered six power-play goals on 14 opportunities — at least three of which were five-on-threes.
“It was just frustration,” Gagne said.
“When you get scored on like we did in the first period (five goals in the first 5:09), you just get frustrated afterwards. I think that’s the norm. You just can’t sit back and say ‘OK, go ahead, we won’t compete whatsoever. We are not going to be frustrated. We are not going to be mad.’
“It is just common sense that there is going to be frustrations, for sure.”
The Rock will be missing 20-year-old defenceman Kealey Cummings for Game 3 after he picked up a one-game suspension for being assessed a GM26 (second misconduct, same game) and GM (game misconduct) in the final 10 minutes of Saturday night’s contest.
Tuesday night, the Rock will be looking to turn the tables and frustrate the Crunch.
“It all comes down to our forechecking, being patient and staying out the penalty box, end of story,” Gagne said.
“It is very simple.”
How about in terms of the health of the Rock heading into Tuesday night?
“I think our feeling are hurt from the last game, but that’s the only thing I know about,” Gagne said.
One of the bright spots for the Rock in this year’s playoffs has been the play of affiliate forward Jace Soroko (4, 2-0-2, 4).
“Given the limited amount of ice time he has been getting, he has scored some goals,” Gagne said.
“He has quite a few hits on the stats sheet already, as well, and he has really been contributing, which is nice. He still has another year of midget eligibility, but he is a kid who has come in and paid attention to what we are asking our players to do. It is nice.
“I think his play is a bit of a wake up call for our veterans, absolutely.”
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard is looking for his squad to continue its strong play Tuesday night, with the series moving the McIntyre Arena.
“We were just looking to keep everything sharp and keep the tempo up in practice,” he said, following Monday afternoon’s on-ice session.
“We were working a bit on our transition game, that’s pretty much all we were doing.”
Like Gagne, Leonard doesn’t see any need to alter the Crunch’s approach in Game 3 in the smaller McIntyre Arena.
“We still have to use our speed,” he said.
“You still see quite a few breakaways at The Mac. There are a lot of odd-man rushes because of the smaller neutral zone. The transition is that much quicker, so it is just a matter of trying to get the pucks out.
“They have big square corners in that rink and that’s the biggest adjustment, getting used to those big square corners. Once you get used to them, it is much easier.”
The Crunch played at the McIntyre Arena four times during the regular season and once in the exhibition season.
“We like playing there and we get fired up for the games,” Leonard said.
“There are always big crowds there and the boys always seem to do better when they play in front of big crowds.”
Will the approach of the Crunch be any different for Game 3 than for the first two games of the series?
“We are just going to go in there and pretend it is another Game 7,” Leonard said.
“Every game that you play in the playoffs, you have to play it like it is Game 7 of the series. We can’t go in there thinking we are up 2-0 in the series.
“Game 3 is going to be a pivotal game in the series. If we win, we are up 3-0 and it is probably lights out. If we lose, we are up 2-1 and it probably gives them some hope.”
The last thing the Crunch want to do at this point in the series is to give the Rock hope.
“They have enough fire power over there to get back in the series and you don’t want to give any team in our league an opportunity.”
Leonard agrees one of the keys Tuesday night is going to be discipline.
“It is all going to come down to whichever team is more disciplined,” he said.
“If you look at the first two games, you will see why we are winning the series.”
The coach is hoping to see his team continue to excel on special teams in Game 3 of the series.
“Our penalty kill sometimes is as good as our power play,” he said, referring to the shorthanded goal his team scored in Game 1 of the series.
“We had really been working on the penalty kill in preparation for this series. We have a very aggressive penalty kill and it works for us. We have so much speed and we like to play physical down deep.
“You definitely have to play well on special teams, for sure.”
The Crunch are 100% healthy heading into Game 3 and they will have 22 of their 23 players available for action, although only 20 of them can dress for the contest.
Defenceman Evan Akkerman (1, 0-0-0, 2) will be eligible to return to the line-up after servicing the one-game suspension he picked up in Game 1 of the series.
However, forward Zak Stepaniuk (1, 0-0-0, 7), who picked up an instigating minor penalty to go along with the five-minute major and game misconduct he was assessed for his fight with Rock defenceman Brennan McGuire (4, 0-1-1, 13) in Game 2, will miss both games in Timmins, as well as Game 5 in Cochrane, if it is necessary, because of the three-game suspension he earned.
Fans should note Tuesday’s game is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start, not the normal 7:30 p.m.