By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
IROQUOIS FALLS – Captain Jordan Rendle scored twice and set up a pair of goals to help lead the Timmins Rock to a 9-5 win over the Eskis Wednesday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
It was the final regular season contest for both the Rock and the Eskis and there was little but bragging rights on the line.
Those bragging rights, by the way, go clearly to the Rock who won all nine meetings with the Eskis this season, to the consternation of 298 Eskis fans in attendance at the Jus Jordan Arena Wednesday night.
“We managed to get through the game with no injuries and no suspensions,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“It almost seemed like an exhibition game. Our objective was to just stay out of the penalty box and not get involved in anything stupid. Our objective was to survive the game and getting two points was a bonus.”
Eskis fans had little to cheer about early on, as the Rock swarmed the home side’s defensive zone in the opening 20 minutes of play, outshooting their hosts 17-7 and building up a 3-0 advantage.
Jacob Shankar got the Rock on the scoresheet midway through the frame when he converted a feed from Cole Gilligan for his 21st goal of the season.
The Rock then got a pair of goals a minute-and-a-half apart, Nicholas Hway’s fifth of the season and Rendle’s 37th to push their advantage to three goals.
It took the Eskis just 51 seconds to respond in the second period, as Shadow Reuben netted his 32nd goal of the season.
“It was a three-on-three and one of our 20-year-old defencemen didn’t take his man,” Gagne said.
Then, midway through the frame, Ryan Gruszka added his 16th goal of the season, a power-play marker, to cut the Rock lead to 3-2.
That goal spelled the end of the night for Rock starting goalie Albert Rogers, with Jeff Veitch coming on to finish up the contest.
The move had nothing to do with Rogers’ performance though, as Gagne intended to make the move to allow Veitch — who had missed a significant stretch of time with an illness — to get some playing time before the start of the playoffs.
“Health-wise, he (Veitch) is good,” Gagne said.
“He has had three practices and we wanted to get him into the game, for his timing and even just conditioning. We gave him half the game and he did well.”
That would be as close as the home side would come to getting back on even terms, however, as the Rock reeled off three-straight goals before the end of the period to take a 6-2 advantage into the second intermission.
Rendle put the Rock back in front by a pair of goals when he scored his second of the night and 38th of the season two minutes later.
Bain Cunningham then added his first of two on the night and 18th of the season to put the Rock up by three goals.
A power-play goal by defenceman Grant McClellan, his sixth of the season, made it a 6-2 game after 40 minutes of play.
Both teams seemed to abandon any focus on defence in the third period, as the two teams exchanged goals as will.
Jack Speer beat Veitch for his 10th goal of the season, with the Eskis on the power play, just 1:06 into the third period.
Wayne Mathieu’s 29th goal of the season then put the Rock in front 7-3.
Four minutes later, Mathieu set up Cory Sprague for his 24th goal of the season, a shorthanded marker, to increase the Rock advantage to five goals.
Reuben answered with his second of the night and 33rd goal of the season to cut the Rock lead to 8-4.
Cunningham’s second of the night and 19th of season, with the Rock on the power-play, restored the visitors’ five-goal advantage, but Morgan Scriber’s first goal of the season for the Eskis made the final 9-5.
Gagne was impressed with the performance of a number of Rock players Wednesday night.
“Rendle (17 points in his past eight games) has been playing extremely well,” he said.
“He goes out there and does his job every night. He is a real 200-foot player and he shows great leadership.
“He has really finished off the year strong.
“McClellan also played extremely well last night. He did his job defensively and even scored on a five-on-three, with a nice shot. He was really aggressive and confident.
“Even Hway had a hell of a game. We gave him a lot of ice time and he was really involved in the play. It was nice to see him get compensated for his effort with a nice goal.”
Eskis coach and assistant general manager Jamy Bernier agreed Wednesday’s game had little meaning for either squad.
“We were just looking to put the regular season behind us,” he said.
“We have learned a lot of good things about our group going into the playoffs and that’s what our main concern is right now, the playoffs.”
While the Rock have to wait until Thursday, March 16, to open the playoffs, the Eskis will travel to Kirkland Lake to open their best-of-three East Division Qualifier against the Gold Miners Friday night.
“The last four games, especially since we weren’t really chasing anything, we just wanted to get through them,” Bernier said.
“We have known for sometime now where we are going to finish in the standings and who we are going to be facing in the playoffs. We kept a lot of our key guys out of the lineup last night in preparation for the playoffs.
“Obviously, we would have liked to have gotten the win to gain some momentum going into the playoffs, but at the end of the day the two points didn’t really mean much.”
With the start of the playoffs on the horizon, the Eskis’ primary focus Wednesday night was on improved defensive zone coverage.
“Obviously, it lapsed a little bit last night, but we had some key guys out of the lineup,” Bernier said.
“It is hard to play your best defence when you are missing some of your best defensive forwards. We were asking some guys to play different roles than they are accustomed to playing.
“We wanted to practise our defensive coverage and obviously it didn’t work out as well as we wanted it to, with us allowing nine goals, but at the same time, I feel we are going to be ready to go Friday night.”
The biggest positive the Eskis can take into Game 1 of their series with the Gold Miners, according to Bernier, is it’s a new season.
“The 56 regular season games are over now and we made the playoffs, which is what we play the season for,” he said.
“It has been proven in just about every hockey league around the world that once you are in the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Despite dropping a 9-5 decision, there were a number of Eskis who impressed their coach Wednesday night.
“It was a special night for our 20 year olds who are graduating from our program,” Bernier said.
“We had a little bit of a ceremony for them prior to the game and I think they were some of our most effective guys last night.
“You look at a guy like Kyle Sutherland who is not known for his point production, but more so for his defensive play and he puts up four points last night. It was a special night for him.
“We also had guys like Jack Speer putting up a goal in his last regular season game. Ryan Gryska did the same thing and Josh DeJulio contributed, as he always does. Jay Sidhu played probably one of his best games of the season. He didn’t find the scoresheet, but that’s not what we ask him to do on a regular basis.
“We had a couple of guys reaching some milestones, as well, with Shadow Reuben picking up his 78th point of the season to tie for second in league scoring at the age of 17 years old. DeJulio was also able to secure his spot as the top-scoring defenceman in the NOJHL. That’s a great milestone. He is probably one of the most underrated defencemen in the league. It is nice to see him finally getting some recognition.
“It was a special night for Morgan Scriber, as well. He got his first goal and his parents were down from (Lloydminster) Alberta to watch him play. It was nice to see the joy on the kid’s face when he picked up that puck. His parents were pretty touched, as well.”
NOJHL NOTES — Forward Maxime Lague (14, 0-3-3, 8) has left the Rock and returned home to St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. With Lague’s departure, affiliate forward Evan Kentish-Stack (12, 0-0-0, 0) and affiliate defenceman Cameron Svec (1, 0-0-0, 0) may see more action in the playoffs … With their nine-goal outburst against the Eskis, the Rock finished tied for most goals, 271, in the NOJHL this season with the Powassan Voodoos … The best-of-three East Division Qualifier will see the Eskis travel to Kirkland Lake for Game 1 at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex Friday night. Game 2 will be at the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls Sunday afternoon and Game 3, if necessary, back in Kirkland Lake on Tuesday night … The best-of-three West Division Qualifier will see the Elliot Lake Wildcats meet the Eagles in Sault, Mich., for Game 1 Friday night, with Game 2 in Elliot Lake Saturday night and Game 3, if necessary, back in Sault, Mich., Tuesday night … The Rock and the Crunch will begin their best-of-seven East Division semifinal series at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Thursday, March 16. Game 2 will also be played in Cochrane on Saturday, March 18. Games 3 and 4 will be played at the McIntyre Arena on Wednesday, March 22, and Saturday, March 25. Game 5, if necessary, will be played at the Tim Horton Event Centre, on Sunday, March 26. Game 6, if necessary, will be played at the McIntyre Arena on Tuesday, March 28. Game 7, if necessary, will be played at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Wednesday, March 29.