The Timmins Rock had a golden opportunity to finish off the Hearst Lumberjacks at the McIntyre Arena Monday night.
Instead of wrapping up their NOJHL East Division best-of-seven semi-final series in six games, however, the Rock squandered that opportunity — thanks in large part to an uninspired opening 40 minutes — as they went on to drop a 5-4 decision.
With the series now deadlocked at 3-3 the action will switch back to the Claude Larose Arena in Hearst for Game 7 on Wednesday night.
Rock coach Corey Beer hopes his squad can build off the effort they showed in the third period of Monday night’s contest.
“In the third period, we actually stuck to our game plan,” he said.
“The first two periods, we were way to scattery, with bad puck movement and not enough pace.
“We are trying to knock off the top team on our side. They are fighting for their lives and you can’t go out and lay an egg for two periods.
“Unfortunately, too many of our guys just didn’t realize the moment they were in tonight, whether it was nerves or just selfish mindset.”
With their backs still against the wall — even after staving off elimination with a 5-3 home-ice win Sunday night — the Lumberjacks struck early and often to put the Rock on their heels Monday night.
Max Johnson’s first of two goals on the night and his fourth of the playoffs, a power-play marker, got the puck rolling for the visitors.
Then a pair of goals 17 seconds apart just past the midway point of the opening period appeared to stun the Rock and their fans.
Bradley Golant netted the first of those two markers when he found the back of the net for his first goal of the playoffs.
Cameron Clark then followed with his second goal of the playoffs to make it a 3-0 hockey game.
The Rock were finally able to get on the scoreboard with less than three minutes to play in the opening frame thanks to Matt Capisciolto’s unassisted marker, his third goal of the playoffs.
Any hope Rock fans had that Capisciolto’s goal might signal a swing in momentum were dash in the second period.
Garett Giertuga netted his first goal of the playoffs at the 7:50 mark of the middle frame and Johnson followed with his second of the game and fifth of the playoffs just over two minutes later to put the Lumberjacks in front 5-1.
That signalled the end of Rock goalie Tyler Masternak’s night, with Jean-Marc Brisson coming on in relief for the home side.
The Rock were able to close the gap to three goals before the end of the second period thanks to a Keegan McMullen power-play marker, his eighth goal of the playoffs.
McMullen’s second goal of the night and ninth of the playoffs then cut the Rock’s deficit to two goals at the 3:24 mark of the third period.
Then, four-and-a-half minutes later, Capisciolto netted a power-play marker, his second goal of the night and fourth of the playoffs to make it a one-goal hockey game.
The Rock continued to press in the last half of the third period, but they were unable to come up with the equalizer and had difficulty getting Brisson out of his net in favour of an extra attacker in the game’s dying minutes.
The Lumberjacks were all over the Rock, blanketing them and came close to adding an insurance goal with just under a minute remaining in regulation, but Brisson came up with a remarkable save to keep the deficit at 5-4.
Regardless of the outcome of Wednesday night’s contest, Beer realizes his Rock squad — the youngest of the 12 teams in the NOJHL — will benefit from this year’s playoff run.
“Our backs are against the wall now,” he said.
“They (Hearst) have all the momentum and they are a great hockey club. They have proved that from Day 1.
“We are going to have to go into a hostile barn and try and take care of business. It is going to be no easy task.”
Playing on the road, the Rock have the advantage of not having to impress their fans.
“You can’t get caught up in that stuff, you just have to go out there and play your own game,” Beer said.
“It is certainly going to be a test for a young club like ours.”
Like most people in the McIntyre Arena, Beer was impressed with the line of McMullen, captain Derek Seguin and Capisciolto Monday night.
“Their puck movement was very good,” he said.
“They were good on the forecheck and opportunistic around the net. It was good to see those three playing well and Capi getting rewarded with a couple of goals.”
Brisson also caught his coach’s eye with his steady play in relief of Masternak.
“He made a great pad save on a broken tip play,” Beer said.
“He has done a great job in relief a couple times this series. We needed that to have a chance to get a push back.”
The Rock were missing three key defencemen — Josh Anderson (serving the second game of a three-game suspension), Eric Moreau (undisclosed injury) and Luka Bolduc (undisclosed injury) — Monday night.
“We were missing our top pair with Moreau and Anderson out,” Beer said.
“For the guys who were in there, I thought early on wasn’t their best hockey, but as things went along, I thought they got a little bit better and our transition kind of cleaned up.
“We had two 16-year-old defencemen and a 17-year-old in (Will) Caston, Duker (Cameron Dutkiewicz) and (Blaine) Boissonneault are 17-year-old APs (affiliate players).
“It was a young group back there, but they certainly did a great job.”
While the Rock have a tough road ahead of them, Beer knows anything can happen in Game 7.
“We go down there and win one game and it’s on to the conference finals,” he said.
After being down 3-1 in the series, Lumberjacks coach and general manager Marc Lafleur is just happy to see his squad make it to Game 7 in front of what promises to be a large and loud crowd at the Claude Larose Arena.
“We will take the goals in whichever way they appear,” he said.
“We kept telling the guys when it was 5-1 that it definitely wasn’t over. There was a lot of game left and it would have been the same if we had been down 5-1. The message would have been the same.
“Corey Beer really has his guys working hard and we knew they weren’t going to cave in.”
While the Lumberjacks were still missing two of their top snipers in Jake Desando (serving the third game of a 10-game suspension) and Max Griffioen (serving the third game of a seven-game suspension), they welcomed back blue-liner Alec Johnson, who returned from a 10-game suspension.
“At the end of the day, Alec is a premier defenceman in this league and on our team,” Lafleur said.
“He was so happy to be back on the ice. He was so happy after Game 5.
“He provides a lot of minutes, can play in all situations and be extremely effective in all situations.”
It looked like twin brother Max was happy to see his sibling return to the lineup, as well.
“I am not a big stats guy, but somebody told me Max has nine points right now,” Lafleur said.
“Not only are we happy with what he brings offensively, but he is playing much better defensively, away from the puck.
“It is guys like him we are going to need in Game 7.”
The Lumberjacks coach was once again impressed by the play of goalie Nicholas Tallarico, although the diminutive puck stopper was not quite as busy as he had been earlier in the series.
“The Rock ended up getting a couple of power plays to keep Tallarico busy and they really took it to us five-on-five for a bit,” Lafleur said.
There was no shortage of other players who made a favourable impression on their coach, as well.
“When you win these types of games, you can go up and down the lineup,” Lafleur said.
“Bradley Golant, you have seen enough of him for two years. He was incredible again.
“(Christian) James-McDoanld, we got him out of southern Ontario and we didn’t know much about him. This kid is unbelievable in terms of killing penalties. He can play in every single situation.
“It is guys like that who have really made this second half as good as it has been for us.”
Late in the contest, the Lumberjacks hemmed the Rock in their own zone, making it nearly impossible for them to pull their goalie in favour of an extra attacker.
“We just wanted to make sure we were covering all the passing lanes and put the puck vertical back to their end instead of playing east-west,” Lafleur said.
Tallarico turned aside 26 of the 30 shots the Rock directed his way to pick up his third win of the playoffs.
Masternak, who blocked 14 of the 19 shots he faced, was tagged with the loss. Brisson stopped all 13 shots fired at him by the Lumberjacks in relief.
NOJHL NOTES — The Daily Press three stars of the game were Max Johnson, McMullen and Capisciolto … The Rock went 2-4 on the power play, while the Lumberjacks were 1-3 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 1,268 … Game 7 between the Rock and the Lumberjacks will be played at the Claude Larose Arena on Wednesday, at 7 p.m.