By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Cochrane Crunch swept the Timmins Rock from the NOJHL playoffs Thursday night at the McIntyre Arena.
After battling back to tie things up at 2-2 late in the second period, the home side and their fans were dealt a death blow early in the third period when Crunch defenceman Joseph Thielen beat Rock goalie Matthew Nixon early in the third period to put the visitors in front for good, 3-2.
The Crunch went on to add two more goals — with the second scored into an empty net — to close out a 5-2 win and a 4-0 sweep of their best-of-seven East Division semi-final series.
“I got a good bounce off of (Crunch forward Brenden) Van Sweden’s skate and the puck popped right out to me in the slot and I just kind of riffled it home,” Thielen said, describing what would prove to be the game-winning goal.
“I was just trying to get the puck on net. I don’t even think I was looking to be honest with you.”
The Huntington Beach, Calif., native agreed his goal helped negate the momentum the Rock had gained at the end of the second period.
“That kind of crushed their spirits a little bit and we were just able to keep going,” he said.
“It really seemed to slow them down and they didn’t seem to have the same jump they had at the end of the second period. They had been all over us. We didn’t let up and we played a real smart defensive game.”
While the Crunch defenders were scrambling around and diving in front of shots in the dying minutes of Tuesday’s game at the McIntyre Arena, they seemed to be more in control in their defensive zone as the final minutes ticked off the clock Thursday night.
“We really had everything going tonight and the boys were fired up,” Thielen said.
“We knew that if we didn’t want to have to play them again that’s what we had to do.”
Cochrane jumped out to a 2-0 first period lead on goals by Hunter Atchison and Dustin Cordeiro.
That advantage held up until the 4:10 mark of the second period, when Tristan Salesse beat Crunch goalie Brett Young for his second goal of the playoffs.
Aaron Kerr’s third goal of the playoffs, just 38 seconds later, got the Rock back on even terms.
Any momentum the Rock gained from that late second period rally was quickly dissipated, however, when Thielen found the back of the net for his first goal of the playoffs at the 1:03 mark of the third period.
Things went from bad to worse for the Rock 2:18 later when Van Sweden netted his first goal of the playoffs to put the visitors in front 4-2.
The Rock called a timeout with 2:30 remaining in the contest and pulled Nixon in favour of an extra attacker.
While they were able to generate a few scoring opportunities, the move backfired when Jeremy McNeil deposited his first goal of playoffs into the empty Rock net with 1:25 remaining on the clock to make the final 5-2.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne agreed his squad played its best game of the series Thursday night.
“We played against a good team and I know our players knew we were a better team than we had been playing like,” he said.
“We never went through a slump this year until we hit the last month or so. You have to give Cochrane credit. Of course they played great. They are a good team, but we were not up to par.
“We didn’t bring our A game tonight, but we still competed and played well. We had a lot of chances and we worked hard, but …”
Fans had a glimpse in the second half of the second period of what had made the Rock so successful for much of the 2015-16 season.
“That’s the team we were for most of the year,” Gagne said.
“We played at that tempo most of the season. In the second period we didn’t just outplay them, we outworked them. That’s what we did all year, but when you get into a slump, the guys are gliding a little bit more.”
Thursday’s loss marked the end of their Junior ‘A’ hockey careers for eight members of the Rock — goalie Logan Ferrington, defenceman Kealey Cummings, defenceman Ryan Kerr, defenceman Joe Olson, defenceman Brennan McGuire, forward Zachary Kercz, forward Andrew Green and forward Landen Matechuk.
The emotions were apparent as the group stayed on the ice long after the game’s final buzzer, wanting to delay as long as possible the final steps down to the corridor leading to the dressing room.
“We have a great bunch of kids here,” Gagne said.
“I have been doing this for many years and this is probably the best dressing room that we have had. They are a great bunch of guys who are united and have a great time together.
“It is going to be sad to see some of them go. Some of these guys have put in three or five years and in Kealey’s case five years. They really appreciated everything and when you love the game, your teammates, your coaching staff and the city, it’s hard to see it all come to an end.”
In Junior ‘A’ hockey, there is no guarantee that players who still have eligibility will return next season, but with a possible pool of 15 the Rock appear to have some nice building blocks around which to start assembling a team for the 2016-17 NOJHL campaign.
“I am hoping that we will have at least four or five players who will come back,” Gagne said.
“That would give us a group of leaders for next season. You never know who is staying and who is not. That’s the nature of the game. We are going to have to do a lot of recruiting for next season.”
That process, according to Gagne, is already underway.
“It’s year round,” he said.
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard is happy to see his team get an opportunity to rest up after completing its sweep of the Rock.
“Tonight, we played more of a complete game,” he said.
“I thought we dominated the game except for the last eight minutes of the second period. All of a sudden, they got a chance on the power play and they got a goal. It woke them up and gave them some life.
“We had to hold on for that last eight minutes of the second period. They hit a crossbar and a post.
“That was the first time I had seen energy like that out of those guys in the whole series. For those eight minutes, they had us pinned in our own zone.”
The Crunch were able to regroup in the second intermission, however, and they never looked back.
“We were in full control in the third period,” Leonard said.
“It was very important for us to get that goal early in the third period. You don‘t want to wait until the last five or 10 minutes of the game. That’s when the bounces start going the other way when you are in another team’s barn.
“Overall, though, I was happy with the way we played tonight. I was happy with our D and our forwards. Everybody was blocking shots and making sure the puck got out of our zone before they took off.”
Leonard was also impressed with the play of the Rock netminder Thursday night.
“I thought Nixon made a lot of good saves,” he said.
“He made a lot of two-on-one saves and three-on-one saves.”
Given a choice, Thielen would much rather see the Crunch face the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners in the next round than the Powassan Voodoos — because of the shorter travel time between the communities, but Leonard doesn’t really care which team his squad gets to face.
“We are going to be playing in the East Division final, and I said right from the start our division is the toughest division in Junior ‘A’ hockey,” he said.
“It is going to be like playing in the league championships. Either Powassan or Kirkland Lake is going to come at us the same way — hard — so we are just going to take the next four days here and relax, let the guys do their thing, enjoy the Easter weekend and heal up a bit. We don’t really have any injuries, just a couple of bumps and bruises from blocked shots.”
Young stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced to earn the win for the Crunch, while Nixon blocked 38 of the 42 shots fired his way and was tagged with the loss for the Rock.
NOJHL NOTES — The three stars of the game were Atchison, Cordeiro and Salesse … The Rock went 1-2 on the power play, while the Crunch were 0-3 with the man advantage … Thursday’s other NOJHL action saw the Goldminers beat the Powassan Voodoos 2-1 in overtime to take a 3-1 lead in the other East Division semi-final series and the Wildcats pound the Rayside-Balfour Canadians 9-2 to claim one of the two West Division semi-final series 4-1 … The Soo Thunderbirds, leading 3-0, will be looking to close out the other West Division semi-final when they take on the Soo Eagles at Pullar Stadium in Sault, Mich., Friday night.