Ten days shy of his 17th birthday, Keegan McMullen scored two goals and set up another to help lead the Timmins Rock to a 5-2 win over the Cochrane Crunch in Game 1 of their best-of-three NOJHL East Division play-in series at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
As one might surmise, Rock coach Corey Beer was pleased with his team’s effort Saturday night.
“I thought our consistency on the forecheck was pretty good,” he said.
“It caused them some fits, but they have a talented team, so you can’t count on the lucky goals going in.
“Our neutral zone was pretty solid and our compete level kept getting better and better throughout the night.
“For a lot of our guys, this was their first Junior ‘A’ playoff game and it was a bit of a shocker. Getting that goal early obviously helped, but I thought we got better as the game went along.”
The Rock, who won six of their eight meetings with the Crunch during the regular season, jumped out to a 1-0 first period lead on captain Derek Seguin’s first goal of the playoffs at the 8:54 mark of the opening period.
Neither team was able to find the back of the net during the middle frame, but the Rock netted a pair of goals one minute and 37 seconds apart in the first three-and-a-half minutes of the third period.
Riley Brousseau got the puck rolling when he scored an unassisted marker at the 1:29 mark and then Matt Capisciolto was credited with a goal that appeared to be knocked into the Crunch net by Cochrane blue-liner Taylor Redmond.
That goal would prove to be the game-winner.
The Crunch finally got on the scoreboard three-and-a-half minutes later when Hunter Buzzi scored a shorthanded goal.
McMullen’s first of two goals on the night, a power-play marker scored on the same man advantage, restored the Rock’s three-goal lead.
He then added his second of the night and the playoffs less than a minute and a half late to make it a 5-1 hockey game.
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard opted to pull starting goalie Zach Wickson following that goal, with Bradley Dobson coming on in relief.
The Crunch were able to eat into that four-goal lead, however, when a long-range Trent Grimshaw shot somehow found the back of the net.
Rock fans — remembering the last Crunch visit to the McIntyre Arena — became a little nervous when the clock ticked down to two minutes to play in regulation.
There was no miraculous Crunch comeback from a three-goal deficit in the final two minutes on Saturday night, however, leaving the final scored 5-2 in favour of the Rock.
The Rock’s big line of Seguin, McMullen and Riley Robitaille was flying Saturday night, but they had plenty of help.
“To be honest, I thought we had great balance throughout the lineup,” Beer said.
“I really liked Josh Dickson’s game tonight. I thought he was our best forward overall. He was dominant in the face-off circle and we got a lot of good minutes out of him.
“(Mahingan) Decontie was like a little buzz saw out there tonight. He got inside of guys and forced the puck deep. He did a great job and you need that, guys up and down the lineup need to contribute.
“I think out balance throughout the lineup tonight really helped us out.”
Fans might have been on the edge of their seat in the final two minutes, but Beer had no concern his team would blow a three-goal lead for a second time against the Crunch.
“We have a great, confident group here,” he said.
“That was a fluky situation the last time, but there was none of that creeping into the minds of our guys.
“Our leaders and our veteran guys spoke up and took charge. We kept pretty level headed, which was great to see.”
The only negative during Saturday night’s victory was the fact the Rock gave up a shorthanded goal and a number of odd-man rushes while they were on the power play.
“Our guys were trying to be too cute and you can’t do that,” Beer said.
“We need workmanlike effort on the power play and to establish pucks low. It is a big detail of our game, but we had a couple of careless plays from some of our guys.
“We are going to have to tidy that up, for sure.”
Beer was once again pleased with the effort turned in by Tyler Masternak in the Rock net, as well as the guys in front of him in the defensive zone.
“I thought the guys did a great job defending around Masty tonight,” he said.
“That was a key point. Ty was obviously sensational again and he did everything he could to give us a chance to win.
“I really liked the way we were aggressive defensively and boxing out. That is a very key trait for us.
“We know tomorrow is going to be an even bigger battle, so we will put this one in the memory bank as a very good start, but we have another bridge to cross tomorrow.”
Leonard was not panicking after Saturday night’s setback, knowing if his team can hold serve Sunday night it will have a chance to steal the series Wednesday night at the McIntyre Arena.
“The better team definitely won tonight,” he said.
“I thought we played a pretty good first period, but we made a big mistake we can’t make. We asked our defencemen not to rush with the puck, but one of our defencemen rushed with the puck and turned it over at the blue-line.
“They came down on an odd-man rush and scored. We had a solid period. We outshot them 10-7, but we didn’t stick to the game plan.
“Then, in the second period, we played pretty well. We killed off some penalties.”
Things unravelled for the Crunch in the third period, as the Rock built upon their lead.
“That second goal deflated us,” Leonard said.
“It was just a real fluky goal, with the puck bouncing high in the air, over the goalie.
“It was like nothing was really going our way tonight.”
That goal was followed almost immediately by the own-goal that saw Redmond accidentally push the puck past his goalie while trying to get it under his pads to stop play.
“The second and third goals really killed us,” Leonard said.
“Our goalie needs to find a way to make those saves. They weren’t dangerous shots.
“Masternak was there for them (the Rock) tonight and that battle was won at the other end, for sure. It’s not that our goalie played bad but at the end of the day the second and third goals really deflate a hockey team on the road, in Game 1 of a playoff series. It just wasn’t meant to be. It was just one of those nights.”
Leonard hopes his Crunch will be ready to take on the Rock at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Sunday.
“We seemed like we were ready before the game started tonight, but we made one bad mistake in the first period and one bad mistake can really make a difference in a hockey game,” he said.
Leonard agreed his squad missed forward Nicolas Flanders who is suspended for the first two games of the series because of an incident in the Crunch’s final regular season game in Rayside-Balfour.
“We need that guy in the lineup and it is disappointing he is not in the lineup,” he said.
“He is the sparkplug of our hockey club, but we have some goal scorers in our room and they haven’t scored in a long time. They have got to wake up.”
Despite the loss, there were a number of Crunch players who impressed their coach Saturday night.
“I really thought (Brett) Whitehead played well for us tonight,” Leonard said.
“He is our AP (affiliate player), but he has been in the league for a long time. He brings veteran experience.
“Eli Hernandez had a really good game for us tonight, as well, as did Ethan Emanuel. I have nothing but praise for those three guys tonight.
“Up front, Buzzi was a sparkplug and another of our APs, Kobe Barrette was also really good in the shifts he got.”
Given a choice, Leonard acknowledged with a chuckle he would rather have had the infamous three-goal, two-minute rally in Saturday night’s contest instead of during his team’s previous visit to the McIntyre Arena.
“Our guys have to realize if they lose Sunday night in Cochrane, it’s going to be a long six weeks of practice,” he said.
“We have put our backs against the wall and that’s what we have been doing for the last three or four weeks.”
Regardless of the outcome of the series, the Crunch will be playing in the Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament, as the hosts.
Masternak, who turned aside 20 of the 22 shots he faced, earn his first 2019 playoff victory for the Rock.
Wickson, who stopped 22 of the 27 shots the Rock directed his way was tagged with the loss, while Dobson blocked both shots he faced in his 10:37 of relief.
NOJHL NOTES — The Daily Press three stars of the game were McMullen, Seguin and Brousseau … The Rock went 1-6 on the power play, while the Crunch were 0-2 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 1,016 … Game 1 of the West Division play-in series saw the Beavers knock off the Elliot Lake Wildcats 5-2 in Blind River Friday night … Game 2 of the East Division play-in series will see the Rock travel to Cochrane for a game against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Sunday. Game time is set for 6 p.m.