By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
Nicholas Hautanen scored a pair of goals and added an assist to help the Timmins Rock blank the Cochrane Crunch 4-0 Tuesday night at the McIntyre Arena.
The victory snapped the Crunch’s 10-game winning streak and pulled the Rock (28-12-3-0) to within 14 points of Cochrane (34-12-4-1) in the race for second place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings.
That gap might sound almost insurmountable this late in the 2016-17 regular season, but the Rock have eight games in hand on their rivals.
Tuesday night’s contest certainly had a playoff feel, as neither team was able to find the back of the net until late in the second period.
With just 15.08 seconds left on the clock, Hautanen took a centering pass from Alexandre Brisson, made a quick little move and beat Crunch goalie Taylor Unruh for his seventh goal of the season to put the Rock in front 1-0.
“He made a beautiful pass out front to me and the puck seemed to find its way in,” Hautanen said.
“I think their goalie was shaken up a little to see me right in front of the crease.”
The 20-year-old Timmins native was not aware of how little time was left on the clock.
“I just saw a lane and Brisson with the puck and good things happen when you go to the net,” Hautanen said.
That goal seemed to rattle the Crunch a little and the Rock pounced on them for a pair of goals 40 seconds apart early in the third period.
Wayne Mathieu beat Unruh for his 21st goal of the season at the 2:29 mark and Hautanen wired a shot from just inside the blue-line for his second of the night and eighth of the season 3:09 into the final period to increase the Rock lead to three goals.
“It was kind of a seeing-eye shot,” Hautanen said.
“I thought it was tipped six or seven times, but I guess they gave me credit for it.”
With one of the game’s greatest offensive defencemen scheduled to drop the puck when the Rock host the Powassan Voodoos at the McIntyre Arena on March 5, was Hautanen trying to do his best Paul Coffey impression Tuesday night?
“Oh no,” he said.
“I was just trying to keep things simple and play our program to a tee.”
That’s the way the score remained until late in the frame, with Unruh on the bench in favour of an extra attacker and the Crunch on the power play to create a two-man advantage.
Mathieu took a feed from Hautanen in the neutral zone, streaked down the left wing and drilled a wrist shot into the empty Crunch net for his second goal of the night and 22nd of the season to make the final score 4-0 in favour of the Rock.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne was happy to see his squad shut down the Crunch, their likely division semi-final opponents when the playoffs get underway in March.
“All four of our lines really played well tonight,” he said.
“We out shot them, so apparently that means we outplayed them. We had four goals and they had none, so that means we outscored them.
“They are a team that came in here riding a 10-game winning streak while we had taken the weekend off. We practiced yesterday (Monday) and I hate to say it but we weren’t sharp, so I was a little worried.”
The Rock certainly looked sharp Tuesday night, however, as they held the Crunch to just 39 shots on net.
“We played a great first period tonight, but we gave them a few too many shots from inside the house,” Gagne said.
“In the second period, we held them to only three shots from inside the house.”
Gagne agreed Hautanen’s goal late in the second period was a turning point in Tuesday night’s contest.
“That Brisson and (Stewart) Parnell line made a heads-up play,” he said.
“We were in the dressing room right after that and the boys were really pumped up. It really raised our level of confidence.
“We really did a good job tonight of getting the puck to the net. Our forechecking and our work down low was incredible tonight. We fed the puck to our defence quite often and they got it to the net. In addition to the goals we got, I think we hit two or three posts from the point.”
Gagne was impressed with the work of Hautanen in all three zones.
“His first couple of shifts tonight it seemed like he was a little nervous, but after that he really settled down,” he said.
“When you score a goal, it certainly gets your mojo going. In the last five or six games, he has been one of our more solid defencemen.”
Indeed, Hautanen received honourable mention when the NOJHL handed out its Defenceman of the Month honours for January.
“He has really improved his defensive play, but we really like when he gets involved offensively, as well,” Gagne said.
“When he was playing Midget ‘AAA’ with the Timmins Majors (of the GNML), he picked up quite a few points.”
A number of other Rock players stood out for Gagne Tuesday night, as well.
“The Parnells, the Brissons … and tonight we put (Jacob) Shankar with them and that added a little bit to that line,” he said.
“I know our goaltender (Albert Rogers) did a great job back there and then you have a kid like (James) Watier, who was hitting and moving the puck well on the blue-line.
“Another player who really stood out for us tonight was (defenceman Brendan) Campbell. I wouldn’t want to play against him. He is mean and he really finishes his checks. He had a lot of guys who were frustrated by him and retaliating against him. That’s the way he plays when he is playing his best.”
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard was pleased with how his team started Tuesday night’s contest, but not how they finished it.
“I thought we dominated the first seven minutes of the game,” he said.
“The shot clock was at 9-1 at one point and then all of a sudden there was a scrum down behind the net, both guys get penalties and we start chirping and taking undisciplined penalties.
“Our guys had no control of themselves. When we come to Timmins, it seems like we would rather chirp and sit in the penalty box than play hockey.
“If we would have kept playing hockey the way we did in the first seven minutes, we probably would have won this game. We were dominating and hitting bodies everywhere. They were flying all over the ice. We had some nice hits and some nice chances.”
Following Tuesday night’s contest, the Crunch — with 724 — are tied for the NOJHL lead in penalty minutes
“We have certain guys, like (forward Justin) Hess, who have no business being on the ice if they is going to be acting like that, chirping all over the ice and taking penalties,” Leonard said.
“I have almost had enough of a couple of guys. I am almost ready to ship a couple of guys out.”
While Unruh made a number of big saves Tuesday night, he was not at his sharpest on Mathieu’s first goal of the night.
“I thought he played well, but that goal was costly,” Leonard said.
“It should have never gone in and it really deflated our hockey club. He needs to be a little bit more focused there. It was a really good game up until that point. A shot like that, from the corner, can’t go in at this level.”
With a 14-point lead over the Rock, the Crunch, to some extent, control their own destiny, but that is little comfort to Leonard.
“I don’t like the way our hockey club is going at this point,” he said.
“We have two or three individuals in our room who think they are above the team and you could see it tonight with who got all the penalties.
“We have got to nip that in the bud in the next couple of weeks before the playoffs start.”
Despite the loss, Leonard was impressed with the play of a number of Crunch players Tuesday night, including his captain.
“Connor Lovie was a machine tonight for us,” he said.
“He was an animal out there and (Taylor) Armbruster played a solid game for us tonight, as well. He is solid every night.
“Kyle Herbster had a strong game for us, but some of our other forwards were very undisciplined and I was very disappointed.”
Rogers turned aside all 39 shots he faced to earn his first shutout in a Rock uniform and just the second since the franchise relocated back to Timmins prior to the 2015-16 campaign. Affiliate goalie Bradley Dobson, who now plays for the Smith Falls Bears, of the CCHL, earned a shutout against the Rapids in French River on Nov. 14, 2015.
Unruh blocked 42 of the 45 shots the Rock fired his way and was tagged with the loss.
NOJHL Notes — The Daily Press Three Stars of the Game were Hautanen, Rogers and Mathieu … The Rock went 0-7 on the power play, while the Crunch were 0-6 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena on a snowy, cold night was 516 … The Rock will return to action on Friday night when they travel to Espanola for a game with the Express. The road trip will continue with a game against the Canadians in Rayside-Balfour Saturday night and a Sunday night contest against the Wildcats in Elliot Lake. The next home game will be Saturday, Feb. 18, when the Rock will entertain the Wildcats at the McIntyre Arena.