HEARST — The Timmins Rock’s hopes of finishing atop the NOJHL’s East Division standing were dealt a severe blow at the Claude Larose Arena Friday night.
A 7-1 loss the host Lumberjacks — current holders of top spot in the division — combined with the Gold Miners 3-2 shootout loss to the Voodoos in Powassan dropped the Rock back into a third-place tie with Kirkland Lake.
Given that eight points still separate the division’s top team from its fifth-place squad it is still far too early to be proclaiming any team as the clear favourite.
Still, the Lumberjacks (30-15-5-1) managed to increase their lead over the second-place Cochrane Crunch (29-18-1-4) to three points, while the Rock (29-18-3-0) fell back into a tie with the Gold Miners (28-16-2-3) , two points behind the Crunch.
While Rock coach Corey Beer didn’t feel the final score was totally reflective of the action on the ice Friday night, he realizes his squad was not up to the task of knocking off the Lumberjacks in their own building.
“We didn’t play great, but it was one of those ones where they got a couple of seeing-eye shots through late,” he said.
“That happens in blowouts.”
Neither team was able to find the back of the net at the Claude Larose Arena until late in the third period Friday night.
The Lumberjacks scored a pair of goals less than three minutes apart to build up a 2-0 lead.
Jake Desando’s power-play marker, his 27th goal on the season, accounted for the first of those two tallies.
Blue-liner Austin Heidt then added his second goal of the season with just 1:14 remaining on the clock in the opening period.
The Rock answered back with a goal of their own, however, before the end of the frame, with Keegan McMullen notching his 14th tally of the season with just 10 seconds remaining in the frame.
In the second period, the Rock outshot their hosts 15-11, but it was the Lumberjacks who netted the frame’s lone goal, with Max Griffioen finding the back of the Rock net for his 25 tally on the campaign.
Beer opted to pull starting goalie Tyler Masternak seven minutes after the third Hearst goal, with Jean-Marc Brisson coming on in relief of his creasemate and finishing up the contest.
“We weren’t playing good hockey in front of Masty and he didn’t deserve the lack of support,” Beer said.
“It wasn’t a game where you want to leave your best goalie in there for a night like that. He doesn’t deserve that. He has been phenomenal for us.
“It is unfortunate Brisser was the guy who had to go in there, but such is life as a back-up goaltender.”
With Brisson just back in the lineup from a lower-body injury, it also afforded him the chance to see some game action.
The third period was all Lumberjacks, as the home side potted four more goals to blow the contest wide open.
Desando got the puck rolling when he netted his second goal of the game and 28th of the season just 26 seconds in the frame.
Just under eight minutes later, Griffioen added a power-play marker, his second goal of the night and 26th on the season.
Then, with just over three minutes remaining on the clock, blue-liner Troy Daniels scored his third goal of the season.
And fellow blue-liner Shaun Simpson capped off the night’s scoring when he found the back of the net for his first goal of the season.
Beer had a simple game plan for the Rock heading into Friday night’s contest, but the team’s execution was clearly lacking.
“We have had success against these guys in the past with clean breakouts and good transition and puck management,” he said.
“Tonight, we weren’t clean on our breakouts, our transition was slow and sloppy and our turnover rate was pretty high. If you turn over the puck against a good team like this, it is going to bite you.”
That certainly is not the formula for success against a team like the Lumberjacks, especially in a very hostile rink.
“They are showing why they are the best team in this league,” Beer said.
“When they are going, they are tough to beat. It was a learning experience for our guys. This team is pretty damn good.
“They play that pressure forecheck. They hit everything and they contest every inch of ice.”
The Rock will have an opportunity to break down Friday night’s loss during a video session on Saturday before returning to practice on Sunday.
“There will be some personnel changes, with guys coming in and out of the lineup,” Beer said.
“You can’t have that kind of performance and have guys get away with the way they played.
“There is no better motivation than getting another chance at a team that kicked you around for 60 minutes. You have to come back and try to prove you are capable of handling that kind of challenge.”
Asked if there were any individual Rock players who turned in a solid effort during Friday night’s contest, Beer simply said: “No.”
One player who is questionable for Monday’s rematch is forward Matt Capisciolto, who left the game with a upper-body injury.
“It was a pretty dirty play and we just hope he is going to be okay,” Beer said.
Nicholas Tallarico, who stopped 25 of the 26 shots the Rock directed his way, went the distance in net for the Lumberjacks to record his 21st win of the season.
Masternak, who blocked eight of the 11 shots he faced in his 30:39 of work, was tagged with the loss for the Rock. Brisson stopped nine of the 13 shots directed his way in his 29:21 between the pipes.
NOJHL NOTES — The three stars of the game were Griffioen, Desando and Daniels … The Rock did not dress forwards Tyler Hutchinson (upper-body injury) and Benjamin Jossinet (undisclosed) … The Rock went 0-7 on the power play, while the Lumberjacks were 2-4 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Claude Larose Arena was 705 … Friday night’s other action saw the Soo Thunderbirds get past the Eagles 3-1 in the Sault, Mich., while the Rayside-Balfour Canadians edged the Express 4-3 in a shootout in Espanola … The Rock will return to action on Monday when they host the Lumberjacks at the McIntyre Arena in a contest scheduled to start at 3 p.m.
Game Photos courtesy of Highway Eleven &Co.