Rock begin playoff push

Rock fans anxiously awaiting the return of forward Stewart Parnell, shown here positioned in front of Gold Miners goalie Cade McEwen during an NOJHL game at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex on Sept. 29, can take some comfort from the fact he may be back before the end of the month. Parnell definitely won’t be in the action when the Rock travel to Kirkland Lake Saturday night and then host the Hearst Lumberjacks at the McIntyre Arena Sunday evening. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)

TIMMINS – As the Christmas break comes to an end, there are 20 games remaining in the regular season for the Timmins Rock to improve their lot in the NOJHL’s East Division.

Having weathered a first-half slew of injuries that boggles the mind, the Rock (13-20-1-2) occupy fourth place in the East Division standings — 10 points behind the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (16-13-5-2) and one point ahead of the Hearst Lumberjacks (13-16-2-0), although it should be noted the latter has five games in hand on Timmins.

Coincidentally, it will be the Gold Miners and the Lumberjacks the Rock tangle with first as they exit the break and accelerate into the final portion of the regular season.

The Rock, who have only two road victories on the season, will travel to Kirkland Lake for a game against the Gold Miners at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex Saturday night, before returning home to host the Lumberjacks at the McIntyre Arena Sunday in a rare 7 p.m. start.

It will be the fourth trip to Kirkland Lake for the Rock, who blew a three-goal third-period lead but salvaged a 4-4 tie on Sept. 29, dropped a 3-1 decision on Oct. 7 and edged their hosts 3-2 on Dec. 17.

“We have played some good hockey in their building, some real close games,” said Rock coach Corey Beer.

“Kirkland Lake has a tremendous offensive group and we will try to match them in terms of pace of play and intensity.

“We intend to stick to our same game plan going in there, keep things simple. On the road, you don’t have to impress anybody.

“Hopefully, we will be able to come out on top. It is two big points and we want to keep the momentum we built up before Christmas going.”

Obviously, the Gold Miners and the Lumberjacks will each present their own unique challenges for the Rock.

“The two teams play a different style of game,” Beer said.

“Hearst is a very hard forechecking team. They like to get pucks in behind our defencemen and pound us into the wall. They play a tougher, very physical game.

“Kirkland Lake is very skilled. Their Top 6 forwards come as advertised. They can make you pay at any time.

“Both teams are getting good goaltending right now, too.

“You don’t want to shift your game plan too much, but we make little small adjustments based on our opponents. Our players can handle those adjustments on the fly.”

While this weekend’s games are against a team the Rock are trying to catch and another it is trying to increase its lead over, Beer feels that is irrelevant to the team’s preparations.

“We try not to focus too much on teams we are chasing or teams that are chasing us,” he said.

“We break down our season into six-game segments and we try to do things the right way and worry about ourselves as opposed to worrying about what other teams around us are doing. We just want to make sure we are competitive right up to the playoffs and give ourselves a chance to get in.

“We can only control what we can control.”

Even though the Gold Miners have accumulated 10 more points in the same number of games (36) as they Rock, they have not been quite as good on the defensive side of the puck.

The Rock — thanks to the strong goaltending of Eric Jackson (1395:00, 9-11-1-1, 0, 2.49, .909) and 17-year-old Tyler Masternak (437:00, 2-4-0-1, 1, 2.06, .931) — have allowed 10 fewer goals than the 114 surrendered by the Gold Miners.

Jackson has the sixth-best goals against average in the NOJHL among qualified goaltenders and no puck stopper has played as many minutes as the Rock keeper so far this season.

The duo of Ryan Winter (1323:00, 11-10-3-0, 3, 2.68, .922) — eighth in the NOJHL in goals against average — and Cade McEwen (813:00, 5-2-2-2, 2.95, .911) give the Gold Miners solid goaltending.

The area where the Gold Miners have a distinct advantage is the offensive zone, as they have scored 16 more goals than the 87 the Rock recorded in the first portion of the season.

In fact, only the Espanola Express, with 60 goals, have found the back of the net fewer times than the Rock to this point in the season.

The Gold Miners have three players — Gregory Trudeau-Paquet (37, 23-26-49, 36), Tyler Fyfe (36, 24-21-45, 12) and Marshal Nikitin (30, 16-25-41, 37) among the NOJHL’s Top 15 scorers.

In addition, the Gold Miners have Kevin Ford (2, 2-1-3, 2) — one of the NOJHL’s top snipers in 2016-17 who has been out with an injury.

The Rock? Nobody in the Top 15, the Top 20, the Top 30 or even the Top 40.

Leading scorer Wayne Mathieu (35, 8-16-24, 22) is tied for 46th place in the NOJHL’s scoring race.

No Rock scorer has cracked the 10-goal plateau yet this season, although they have a number who are within striking distance including Jordan Picard (37, 7-15-22, 36), Derek Seguin (23, 7-12-19, 32), Tyler Gilberds (34, 8-10-18, 36), Stewart Parnell (22, 9-8-17, 10) and C. J. Bradburn (25, 7-9-16, 20).

Alexandre Brisson (24, 8-9-17, 12) was also close before he was dealt to the Huntsville Otters, of the PJHL, on Nov. 21.

Parnell, who has not played in a Rock game since Nov. 10, is making progress after suffering an upper-body injury with Team NOJHL at the Eastern Canada Cup All-Star Challenge.

“We are kind of hoping he will be back in the lineup and playing by the end of the month,” Beer said.

“He has got good range of motion back in the arm and he is doing strength training and we are trying to get him back up to speed as quickly as possible.

“We don’t want him back in the lineup until he is 100%, so he has a bit of work ahead of him. He has been in the gym and working pretty hard.

“We are going to be pretty excited to get him back.”

That’s understandable given Parnell was arguably the Rock’s best player during the 2017 playoffs.

The news is not quite so good when it comes to a pair of Rock blue-liners.

Eric Paquette (27, 0-5-5, 12), the 20-year-old blue-liner the Rock acquired from the French River Rapids on Nov. 15 remains out with a lower-body injury.

“His foot injury is driving him nuts,” Beer said.

“He tried to fight through it after we picked him up in the trade, but it is causing some major issues for him. He had an MRI done and he is just waiting on the results.

“We are hopeful it could be something that could be a week or two weeks, but it could still be another month.

“We will see him back in the lineup eventually, but we want to make sure there are no long-term ramifications.”

Meanwhile, it appears James Redmond (25, 2-5-7, 6) — arguably the Rock’s top defender when he is healthy — may indeed be gone for the season with his upper-body injury.

Redmond has twice tried to battle through the pain and play while he awaits off-season surgery, but he has not seen any action since Dec. 12.

“I don’t think we will see him back in the lineup this year,” Beer said.

“The injury is in such a bad place in terms of that shoulder popping out and the last time he hurt it, he was lunging forward to reach for the puck.

“That’s the kind of thing that is going to keep re-occuring and I have never had a separated shoulder, but I can only imagine the pain he is in. There is no point in allowing him to put himself into that type of situation.”

The Rock are counting on having Redmond back in the lineup for the 2018-19 season.

“He is a big part of our future,” Beer said.

NOJHL NOTES — The Blind River Beavers have traded 18-year-old goalie Mike Corson,who leads the league in goals against average (2.00) and saves percentage (.949), to the Cowichan Valley Capitals, of the BCHL, in exchange for a player development fee. The Beavers have also acquired 19-year-old blue-liner Ryan Mulligan from the Soo Thunderbirds … Fans across the league can expect more moves in advance of the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Jan. 10 trade deadline … With an average of 759 fans per game, the Rock continue to lead the NOJHL in attendance this season. They are followed by the Lumberjacks (681), Soo Eagles (586), the Rapids (314), the the Cochrane Crunch (289), the Espanola Express (284), the Elliot Lake Wildcats (275), the Gold Miners (255), the Powssan Voodoos (231), the Beavers (230), the Rayside-Balfour Canadians (209) and the Soo Thunderbirds (139).