By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
COCHRANE – The Crunch rallied from a three-goal deficit to edge the Timmins Rock 5-4 and stay alive in Game 5 of their NOJHL East Division semifinal series Sunday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre.
And it was NOJHL regular-season scoring leader Braeden Cross, held scoreless in the first four games of the series, who ignited the offence for the Crunch.
The 20-year-old Sechelt, B.C., native scored a goal that pulled the Crunch to within one goal of the Rock early in the third period, as well as the game-winner and also dished out an assist.
“It was nice to see that first one go in,” Cross said.
“I have kind of been in a bit of slump to start the series, so it was nice to get the monkey off my back and get the boys rolling.
“I wasn’t really doing anything differently than I was during the first four games of the series. Maybe I was a little bit more relaxed. Things didn’t seem to be clicking in the first few games, but tonight I was just trying to make plays and get pucks to the net like I always do.”
Cochrane fans are clearly hoping Cross has regained his touch in time to help the Crunch take the series to the full seven games and win it on home ice.
“Once you bury one after going a while without scoring, your hands kind of soften up and the goals seem to come easier after that,” he said.
Cross is confident the Crunch are going to be able to rally and win the series.
“The guys in our locker room are not going to give up on each other,” he said.
“No matter how far we have been down, we have always believed we can come back. We went out in the third period tonight and rolled lines that were ready to work hard and get the job done.
“Heading into Game 6 Tuesday night in Timmins, we just have to stick to our game plan and pressure them with a hard forecheck.
“We just needed this game to get us going. All year long, our team has had streaks where we have lost a few and then gone on huge winning streaks.”
For the first time in the series, the Rock scored the game’s first goal and built up a 3-0 advantage before the home side got on the scoreboard.
Captain Jordan Rendle beat Crunch starting goalie Taylor Unruh late in the first period for his third goal of the playoffs with the Rock enjoying the man advantage.
Wayne Mathieu increased the visitors’ advantage to two goals 51 seconds in the middle frame when he potted his first goal of the playoffs.
Then, just past the midway point of the period, Rendle added his second of the night and fourth of the playoffs.
It appeared at that point the Rock were about to finish off the Crunch in five games, but the home side was having none of that.
Nate Viberg beat Rock starting goalie Albert Rogers for his second goal of the playoffs just over two minutes after Rendle had put the Rock in front by three goals.
That marker provided the fans with a little bit of hope as the two sides headed to their respective dressing rooms for the second intermission.
Cross’s first goal of the night, a power-play marker 41 seconds into the third period, pulled the Crunch to within one goal, at 3-2.
The Rock got that one back just over a minute later, however, as Bain Cunningham score his third goal of the playoffs to restore Timmins’ two goal advantage.
That goal signaled the end of Unruh’s night, with Leighton Williams — who had played in the first four games of the series — coming on in relief.
Discipline proved to be an issue for the Rock as the period progressed the Crunch — who had just one power-play goal in the first four games of the series — struck for their second and third of the game to deadlock things at 4-4.
Austin Stauffer’s second goal of the playoffs was the first of those markers and just over a minute later Nicolas Flanners netted his first goal of the playoffs.
That set the stage for Cross’ game-winner at the 11:24 mark.
The Rock had a number of excellent scoring opportunities in the final half of the third period, but they could not get the puck past Williams.
In the final minute of regulation, the Rock pulled Rogers in favour of an extra attacker and then were presented with a two-man advantage when Crunch blue-liner Joseph Thielen was sent off for slashing with 32 seconds remaining on the clock.
They came close in the dying seconds, but Williams and his fellow Crunch penalty killers were able to weather the storm.
While Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne was pleased to see his team score the first goal in a game for the first time in the series he wasn’t happy with the lack of discipline that saw them blow a three-goal lead.
“At one point, when it was 3-1, they (the Crunch) started taking penalties, including a five-minute major, and you could tell the game was over,” he said.
“Then, we started taking penalties of our own, just like we were doing back at mid-season. The refereeing was excellent. We started taking stupid penalties and next thing you know the momentum started going the other way and we lost the game.”
What do the Rock have to do to finish off the series Tuesday night and prevent a Game 7 back in Cochrane Wednesday night?
“No. 1, we have to stay out of the penalty box,” Gagne said.
“We can’t be taking penalties like we did tonight. There is no reason for it. We just need to play our game like we had been. We had been on a nice roll and we are still on a roll. We could have tied this game up at the end. We had all kinds of chances.”
The coach was again impressed with the play of his third line — Alexandre Brisson, Stewart Parnell and Jacob Shankar — Sunday night.
“Jordan Rendle and Bain Cunningham were outstanding tonight, as well,” Gagne said.
“I think Cunningham was 21-4 in faceoffs and on defence, (Grant) McClellan was steady in his own end.
“Tuesday night, we are going to have to have everybody bringing their A game.”
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard was happy to see his team get rewarded for their hard work Sunday night.
“Everybody stepped up and we scored some dirty, gritty goals tonight,” he said.
“You could really see the intensity during that whole third period.”
Leonard was also happy to see Cross snap out of his scoring slump in a big way Sunday night.
“It’s huge for us to have him back contributing,” he said.
“He scored two big goals and we lost (Konnar) Dechaine and we lost (Brandon) McReynolds, who took a real dirty slash, but all the other guys really stood up.”
Leonard was happy with the effort of all of his players, but opted to single out a couple of them for a little extra praise.
“(Connon) Lovie was an animal out there today,” he said.
“He was playing physical and (Quinn) Robelle was an animal. (Austin) Stauffer’s group with (Kyle) Herbster was great. We had a lot of warriors tonight.”
Leonard is looking for the Crunch to build on the momentum from Sunday’s big win when the series continues Tuesday night.
“We need to go hard in Game 6 and steal one there in their building and them come back home for Game 7,” he said.
Williams, who stopped all 15 shots the Rock fired his way during his 18:16 of action, earned the victory. Unruh turned aside 12 of the 16 shots he faced in the contest.
The Rock’s curious goaltending situation continued Sunday night, with Jeff Veitch coming on in relief of Rogers at the 16:42 mark of the first period, staying in the Timmins net for the next 2:06, then again relieving Rogers at the 13:17 mark of the third period. Between them, the two Rock goalies stopped 40 of the 45 shots they faced.
NOJHL NOTES — The Crunch were without the services of forward Justin Hess, who was serving the first game of a two-game suspension he picked up after being assessed a head-check infraction during Game 4 of the series in Timmins Saturday night … The three stars of the game were Cross, Thielen and Rendle … The Rock were 1-12 on the power play, while the Crunch were 3-9 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Tim Horton Event Centre was 367, in part due to the freezing rain … Sunday’s other contest saw the Beavers edge the Rayside-Balfour Canadians 4-3 in overtime in Blind River to deadlock that West Division semifinal series at 3-3 … Game 6 in the series will be played Tuesday night at the McIntyre Arena. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.