HEARST — The Timmins Rock’s quest for a NOJHL championship came to an unsuccessful conclusion when the final buzzer sounded on their 2019 playoffs on Wednesday at 9:26 p.m.
A 3-2 loss the Lumberjacks in Game 7 of their East Division semi-final series at the Claude Larose Arena eliminated the Rock from the 2019 post season and secured Hearst a match-up with the Powassan Voodoos in the East Division finals.
Even though the Rock came up short against the Lumberjacks, many people would see the NOJHL’s youngest team taking the East Division regular-season champs to seven games as a significant accomplishment.
While the Lumberjacks feature seven 1998-birth-year players on their roster, only two members of the Rock — forwards Matt Capisciolto and Tyler Hutchinson — were in their final year of Junior ‘A’ eligibility.
So, the playoff experience gained in the hard-fought East Division semi-final should serve the Rock well, as they begin to assemble their 2019-20 NOJHL roster.
While Rock coach Corey Beer was naturally disappointed to see his squad come up short Wednesday night, he was still proud that they were able to come within a goal of knocking off the East Division champs.
“It is kind of how our season has gone,” he said.
“We have been a cardiac team that has tried to find a little bit of life late in games.
“We kept battling tonight and did everything we could to get that goal to pull us to within one, but unfortunately we weren’t able to get that tying goal.
“It was a heck of a series. The first two games here, the scores weren’t indicative of how the series was going. Every other game was a one-goal game, with the exception of Game 5 that had an empty-net goal.
“It just shows how tough this series was, how tight it was. Both goaltenders (Tyler Masternak for the Rock and Nicholas Tallaric for the Lumberjacks) were incredible.
“The fans here and at home were treated to some pretty good hockey from both sides.”
The Lumberjacks got on the scoreboard first in Wednesday night’s contest, thanks to blue-liner Troy Daniels second goal of the playoffs, an unassisted marker, at the 7:47 mark of the opening period.
Capisciolto’s power-play marker, his fifth goal of the playoffs, got the Rock back on even terms early in the middle frame.
It took the Lumberjacks just three-and-a-half minutes to regain the lead, however, courtesy of Blaise Arkle’s first goal of the playoffs.
Ten minutes later, Max Johnson supplied what would prove to be the game-winning goal when he notched his sixth goal of the playoffs.
The Lumberjacks were able to nurse that two-goal lead until the 18:06 mark of the third period when Riley Brousseau scored his third goal of the playoffs to pull the Rock to within a single goal.
Any attempts to tie the contest with goalie Tyler Masternak on the bench in favour of an extra attacker came up short, however, leaving the final score 3-2 in favour of the Lumberjacks.
In Junior ‘A’ hockey, there is no guarantee players who are eligible to return will be back with their teams the following year, but Beer knows he should have a solid core around which to construct his 2019-20 squad.
“You can’t bat your eye at the 33 wins we had this year,” he said.
“We only had two 20 year olds on our roster, one of whom, in Hutch, who played a depth role for us.
“We had a couple of 19 year olds spread throughout the lineup, but our key guys were 18 years old, guys like (Derek) Seguin and (Riley) Robitaille and (Josh) Dickson. I am going to miss names here.
“Then, you got a year younger and you have got guys like Eric Moreau, Will Caston, Riley Brousseau and Gage Tremblay.
“These are guys who were 17 years old and matched up against 19 and 20 year olds.
“Then, you go further than that and you look at the playoff series a 16-year-old Keegan McMullen (9, 9-6-15, 2) had.
“For my money, he and Derek Seguin were arguably the two best players in this series. They were absolutely incredible.
“Then, we had Carson Burlington and Owen Shier on the back end and you add in Rhys Chiddenton, at 15, in his first Junior ‘A’ playoff series and he gets two big goals on the road.
“This team is built for long-term success. Obviously, Hearst was a very veteran-laden team, with only two 18 year olds on their roster. The rest are 19 and 20.
“This was a very special group this year. We didn’t accomplish what we wanted to in the end, but learning from this, the guys who come back next year are going to be better for it.
“You look at how our roster was constructed this year and we had those young guys in key areas and they are going to continue next year and they will be a year older and more in tune with the league.”
Even though the Rock came out on the losing end of Wednesday night’s score, there were plenty of players who impressed their coach.
“Ty Masternak was phenomenal,” Beer said.
“Without him, it wouldn’t have been a one-goal game. He was sensational all year and set records. He was our backbone all year.
“Will Cason played monster minutes again on the back end and did a great job. He stepped into a role on the power play with Josh Anderson (serving the third game of a three-game suspension) out.
“Our power play was really good tonight and he kind of quarterbacked it.
“Eric Moreau, coming back in from a separated shoulder, playing through it and playing how well he did tonight, we have got an absolute stud on our hands.
“You look no further than our captain and the way Derek Seguin has played day-in and day-out since Aug. 17 when camp opened. In my opinion, you will not find a better player in this league.
“I still don’t think he gets the recognition he deserves. He plays as heavy an offensive game as anybody in this league and he can still play a shutdown match-up taking care of the other team’s best players.”
The Rock knew they were in tough Wednesday night, but they felt if they could stick to the game plan they might have had a chance.
“We made a couple of adjustments,” Beer said.
“We tried ramp up our forecheck, but unfortunately it took a little too long to get going. I don’t know if there were some Game 7 jitters or whatnot.
“We wanted to have a quick transition and at certain points it was pretty good, but ineffectiveness on puck play tonight wasn’t very good.
“In a Game 7 like this, it is the small details that bite you. We had a couple of goals against, with a bad forecheck. We were late getting in there and they chipped it by us. They went the other way and scored.
“We had one where we had bad defensive positioning on a shot from the point that got tipped.
“Those are the kind of small things that can stack up against you in a series. In a Game 7, there isn’t any room for error.”
Beer, who is fully committed to returning in 2019-20 and helping the Rock continue their development, is grateful to the support he received this season.
“I really appreciate the work done on the management side by (general manager) Kevin Peever and (assistant general manager) Eric Pauqette,” he said.
“Those guys were on the phone with me five or six times a day and I am sure their wives were a little fed up with me at times.
“Obviously, my assistant coaches Marc Bisson and James Daschuk were great, as well. I wouldn’t be the coach I am without those guys. They do so much of the behind the scenes work, managing the emotion levels of our players, calming guys down and pumping guys back up.
“And we added (Timmins Majors coach) Brandon Perry on for this playoff run.
“I have been so lucky to have such a great staff. It certainly doesn’t feel like you are going to work every day when you are with these guys. They are incredible.”
Lumberjacks coach and general manager Marc Lafleur was pretty happy to see his squad battle back from a 3-1 series deficit and advance to play the Voodoos.
“We are happy to have won and to get the series over with,” he said.
“It was a very tough one. The key to our victory, like I told you last week, is there were a couple of key moments in the game and we ended up winning those key moments.
“For example, there was a big (penalty) kill about half way through the third period.
“We ended up, as well, scoring a goal off a turnover and capitalized on our chances.”
While some might have doubted the Lumberjacks’ ability to rebound for a 3-1 series deficit, their coach never lost faith.
“I know you are looking at it as just a seven-game series, but we have been on about a 30-game stretch where we have been playing playoff hockey,” Lafleur said.
“It has been nail-biter time since about early December for us. Even when we were down 3-1 in the series, all we said to the guys was just break down everything into increments.
“Instead of looking at it as we have to win three-straight games, let’s just win the next period and the next shift, go from there and see what happens.
“This is the most resilient hockey team I have ever coached. With all the stuff that went on and all the adversity we had to deal with this year, I knew we could come back because of the character of this team.”
The Lumberjacks got big contributions Wednesday night from the players who led the way for most of the series.
“Troy Daniels got another incredible goal tonight,” Lafleur said.
“He has been incredible, not only offensively but he played against the Seguin line all seven games. Don’t get me wrong, the Seguin line played terrific, with McMullen and whomever they put on the right side, but Troy Daniels and Austin Heidt were that shutdown pairing that did pretty good against them.
“Nic Tallarico showed why he was the league (regular season) MVP, making the key saves in the key moments.
“Christian James-McDonald had another solid game for us tonight. He is a terrific shutdown and two-way forward.
“Those kind of guys bring it every single night.”
The Claude Larose Arena was once again packed for Wednesday night’s contest — with the vast majority of the fans cheering on the hometown Lumberjacks.
“The fans have been terrific here all year,” Lafleur said.
“The community has really embraced the team. We are glad we were able to bring this seventh game to them.”
Tallarico, who stopped 11 of the 13 shots the Rock were able to direct his way, earned his fourth victory of the playoffs.
Masternak, who turned aside 21 of the 24 shots directed his way, was tagged with the loss.
NOJHL NOTES — The three stars of the game were Daniels, Tallarico and McMullen … The Rock went 1-2 with the man advantage, while the Lumberjacks did not get any power-play opportunities … Official attendance at the Claude Larose Arena was 1,295 … While the dates for the East Division final between the Lumberjacks and the Voodoos has not been announced yet, the West Division final between the Thunderbirds and the Rayside-Balfour Canadians will get underway Saturday in Sault Ste. Marie.