GALLERY: Crunch eliminate Rock

Cochrane Crunch forward Zach Hayes deflects a shot on Timmins goalie Eric Jackson as Rock defenders Jared Hester, left, and Shawn Sloan look on during the first period of Game 5 of the NOJHL East Division semi-final series at the Tim Horton Event Centre Friday night. Jackson made the save on the play, but Hayes scored a pair of second-period goals to help lead the Crunch to a 4-2 win over the Rock, allowing them to close out the best-of-seven series 4-1. The Crunch will now move on to meet the winner of the West Division final — either the Rayside-Balfour Canadians or the Soo Thunderbirds. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)

COCHRANE – A spirited late third-period rally by the Timmins Rock came up just short Friday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre, allowing the Crunch to win the East Division title and advance to the NOJHL final.

The 4-2 victory gave the Crunch the best-of-seven series 4-1 and ended the Rock’s improbable playoff run that saw them eliminate the No. 4-ranked team in Canada, the Powassan Voodoos, in the East Division semi-finals.

Friday’s late third-period Rock rally was inspired by an almost impossible stop by goalie Eric Jackson on a point-blank slap shot off the stick of Crunch captain Connor Lovie.

The majority of the731 fans in attendance — both Rock and Crunch supporters — leapt to their feet and gave the Timmins netminder a standing ovation.

Shortly thereafter, with Lovie in the penalty box for holding and Jackson on the bench in favour of an extra attacker, the Rock were finally able to get the puck past Crunch goalie Shayne Battler — who had shut them out 1-0 in Game 4 in Timmins on Wednesday.

Stewart Parnell, with his first goal of the playoffs, got Timmins on the board and cut the Crunch advantage to 3-1.

Then, just over a minute later, with the two sides back playing five-on-five hockey and Jackson in the Timmins net, Wayne Mathieu beat Battler for his sixth goal of the playoffs to make it a one-goal hockey game.

Again, in the game’s final two minutes, the Rock pulled Jackson in favour of an extra attacker in hopes they could net the equalizer.

That would not be the case, however, as Crunch forward Austin Whelan sped down the left wing before cutting to the empty Rock net and depositing his second goal of the playoffs to make the final 4-2 in favour of the home side.

Neither team had been able to find the back of the net during the first period of Friday night’s contest, but Zach Hayes had provided the Crunch with a two-goal lead when he scored a pair of goals, his fourth and fifth of the playoffs, 34 seconds apart in the middle frame.

That’s the way the score remained until early in the third period when Austin Stauffer took a drop pass and beat Jackson for his fifth goal of the playoffs to make it a 3-0 hockey game and set the stage for the Rock rally.

While Rock coach Corey Beer was sad to see his young team finally eliminated from the 2018 playoffs, he knows they accomplished something special.

“I am unbelievably proud of the job we did in the playoffs this year,” he said.

“We just fell short and it is tough. I thought when we got to 3-2, we had the momentum going and we hit a crossbar.

“It is just a game of inches. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t meant to be for us.”

The Rock coach agreed Jackson’s amazing save inspired his teammates at a time when they desperately needed a spark of some kind.

“You certainly don’t get those types of good offensive opportunities without good goaltending,” Beer said.

“Whether it was Masty (Tyler Masternak) the first couple of rounds, or E.J. in this round, it is the type of save you need in a game like this. That save he made was huge and it gave us every chance to stay in this game.”

A number of other Rock players impressed Beer with their efforts Friday night, as well.

“You look at the job Jared Hester, Grant McClellan, Will Caston and Shawn Sloan did on the back end,” he said.

“Those guys were playing 25 to 30 minutes a night. They were unbelievable, the amount of minutes they play, hard minutes.

“Up front, that line of (Derek) Seguin, (Riley) Robitaille and Mathieu, I would guess were around 30 minutes tonight as a forward group. In a situation like this, Wayne Mathieu is not coming off the ice. He has the golden ticket to try and stay out there and score a goal.

“His playoff was utterly impressive. Him and Hess will be sorely missed. They are special players.

“It is probably going to come out in the next couple of days some of these guys were more hurt than they were letting on. Stewart Parnell was dealing with multiple upper-body injuries and he is probably going to need new shoulders eventually.

“His game really kick started in the third period and got going. He is a bigger body and he is able to create separation down low. I thought this was his best game tonight and we needed it for sure.”

The Crunch’s combination of size, speed and skill just proved to be too much for the Rock to handle.

“We don’t play a physical style, so it is not going to be conducive to wearing them down,” Beer said.

“We knew we had to play a puck possession game against them and it can be a risk-reward situation at times.

“You have to give full credit to (Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard) Lenny and his guys. They have a great hockey team over there and they gave us fits all year.

“We thought we did a pretty good job against them in terms of boxing out and stuff, but at the end of the day when the scoresheet reads in favour of them, they are the better team.

“It was a great series for them and good for our guys to get the experience through it.”

In Junior ‘A’ hockey there is no guarantee just because a player is eligible to return that they will be back, but the Rock only lose four players to overage, one of whom (forward C.J. Bradburn) who missed most of the playoffs due to an upper-body injury.

“I think that bodes well for next year,” Beer said.

“You never want to look to next year, you want to live in the moment, but after getting through massive opponents in Hearst and Powassan and you get to the division finals you want to take advantage of it.

“It didn’t work out, but we have a lot of players who can come back. I think Grant McClellan summed it up best in the room, talking about what we are creating in terms of a program and a group that is playing the right way and doing things the right way.

“So, for the guys who are eligible to come back, I think this is the start of something special.”

Beer, who took over from long-time coach Paul Gagne prior to the start of the season, is appreciative of all the help he has gotten since joining the organization.

“(General manager) Kevin Peever and (assistant general manager) Eric Paquette did a phenomenal job assembling this roster and getting the players we needed to play playoff-style hockey,” he said.

“Without the buy-in from them, the job they did day-in and day-out, having to deal with me, and lastly my assistant coaches Beezer (Marc Bisson) and Dazzer (James Daschuk, I would be nowhere. They do a phenomenal job and keep me grounded.

“They work with these guys on a much more personal basis than I get to as the head guy. I am blown away by the type of camaraderie our staff has.

“Finally, it may be a cliché but I want to thank the fans. I have never been able to experience anything like this down south in terms of the passionate people who come to our rink. Timmins is such a special place to be and I couldn’t have asked for a better first year up here.

“I can’t wait to get this thing rolling again next season.”

As one might expect, the mood on the other side of the Tim Horton Event Centre was a little more upbeat.

Battler, who came within 4:50 of recording a second-straight shutout, was just happy to get the win and help the Crunch clinch the series.

“It really isn’t about the stats,” he said.

“It is about winning and the team, as a whole, getting to where we want to be and I think we are on track to do that.”

With two shutouts in four playoff starts, Battler admits he likely hasn’t been any hotter as a goalie than he is right now.

“I have just been doing what I can do and riding with it,” he said.

“It has all been going well. The guys have been helping me out a lot.”

Getting to play behind the Crunch’s twin towers — Lovie and Noah Bennett — can make any goaltender’s job a little easier.

“I think we probably have one of the best D corps in the league,” Battler said.

“They help me out so much every night and I can’t really give enough credit to those guys.”

What has been the secret to Battler’s playoff success?

“I think a lot goes into preparation and practice, working hard and being ready to play,” he said.

“I didn’t start the series, but when I got to go in, I just did my job.”

For Leonard, the end of Game 5 provided a case of déjà vu.

“In last year’s series, having a two-goal or three-goal lead against these guys (didn’t work out so well),” he said.

“They got some momentum off that first goal and then we had a missed assignment right away and we got a little frazzled, but when we called our timeout, we got our composure back.

“We just got a little too excited, too quick.

“What really pumped those guys up was on our power play down there that Jackson kid made one hell of a save. That just fired their boys right up. He made a save I haven’t seen in a long time.

“Kudos to the whole Rock organization, they gave us all we could handle but at the end of the day we built our team for this. We made that big bid for the Dudley Hewitt Cup and we knew we had to be one of the better teams this year.

“Now, we get a chance to play in the league championship and hopefully we can go to this year’s Dudley Hewitt Cup, but one thing at a time.

“We want that championship. We are just finishing up our fourth season here in Cochrane.”

There was no real secret to what the Crunch did to build up their 3-0 lead Friday night.

“We just kept working and staying with it,” Leonard said.

“Battle was playing so awesome, it gave us a little bit more time to go a little bit more on offence and spread a little bit more. The D felt comfortable back there. He wasn’t giving out rebounds.

“You could tell the team was a little bit more confident back there.

“Our whole hockey club worked hard from start to finish. Everybody was doing their jobs. Nobody was being a superstar tonight.

“Tonight a new guy stepped up, Hayes stepped up. We have so much depth. That’s why we are a hard team to play.”

Battler turned aside 32 of the 34 shots the Rock fired his way to earn his third victory of the playoffs.

Jackson, who turned aside 37 of the 40 shots directed his way, was tagged with the loss.

NOJHL NOTES — The three stars of the game were Hayes, Battler and Jackson … Game 5 marked the end of the Junior ‘A’ careers of three Rock players, forwards Wayne Mathieu and Jordan Hester, as well as defenceman Jared Hester … The Rock went 1-5 on the power play, while the Crunch were 0-2 with the man advantage … The Crunch will now move on to meet either the Rayside-Balfour Canadians or the Soo Thunderbirds in the NOJHL final. Their best-of-seven West Division final is tied at 2-2.