By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – A decision by the Timmins Rock to reunite the line of Wayne Mathieu, Jordan Rendle and Cory Sprague paid big dividends Wednesday night.
The trio combined for 12 scoring points as the Rock doubled the visiting Iroquois Falls Eskis 8-4 at the McIntyre Arena.
Mathieu scored his 26th and 27th goals of the season and added three assists, while Rendle scored his team-leading 30th goal of the season to go along with three helpers and Sprague netted his 21st goal of the season and dished out a pair of assists.
“We started off the year together and I think everything was just working for us tonight,” Mathieu said.
“We had a lot of points tonight, but I think we all missed our fair share of open nets, as well.”
Mathieu’s two goals were very similar.
“I went to the net and Sprague fed the puck right to my tape both times,” he said.
“I couldn’t miss. The net was right there, wide open in front of me. Sprague pulled everyone his way and I was left with the puck.”
After playing six games — including five on the road — in nine days, the Rock had a chance to finally catch their breath between Saturday night’s win over the Wildcats and Wednesday night’s contest.
“It felt good,” Mathieu said.
“The boys got some rest, but we still had practice and stuff.”
The victory allowed the Rock (33-14-3-0) to pull within eight points of the idle Cochrane Crunch (36-13-4-1) in the battle for second place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings. The Rock still have four games in hand on their rivals.
The Rock jumped out to an early 1-0 lead Wednesday night, as Tyler Romain beat Eskis goalie Trevor Hawkes for his 27th goal of the season just 1:43 into the contest.
That goal stood up for remainder of the period and the two teams went to their dressing rooms for the first intermission with the Rock enjoying a one-goal advantage.
Rendle increased the lead to 2-0 when he scored 57 seconds into the second period and Sprague made it a 3-0 hockey game less than five minutes later.
The Eskis got that one back midway through the period, as Josh DeJulio scored his 11th goal of the season to cut the Rock lead to 3-1.
Mathieu’s first of the night restored the Rock’s three-goal advantage and defenceman Grant McClellan added his fifth goal of the season late in the frame to put the home side up 5-1 heading into the second intermission.
Eskis coach and assistant general manager Jamy Bernier opted to pull Hawkes to start the third period, with Ty Sparling coming on in relief for the visitors.
Bain Cunningham greeted the new goalie with his 17th goal of the season five-and-a-half minutes into the final frame.
The Eskis battled back to pull within three goals a short time later, however, as Dillon Bruce scored his 25th goal of the season and Ryan Gruska added his 13th goal of the season just over a minute later.
Defenceman Jared Hester scored his 10th goal of the season, a power-play marker, to put the Rock up 7-3.
Mathieu netted his second of the night less than three minutes later to put the home side up by five goals.
Shadow Rueben responded with his 28th goal of the season two minutes later, but that would be as close as the Eskis would come to getting back on even terms.
Rock assistant coach Marc Bisson was happed to see the Rock record their second-straight win and their eighth in their past 11 games.
“Every point counts at this point in the season,” he said.
“We pretty much have to run the table if we are going to catch Cochrane, so we will take wins any way we can get them.”
The Rock took control of the game in the second period and even when the Eskis mounted a mini-comeback Bisson was not worried.
“The boys were still pretty confident,” he said.
“There were a couple of plays where we did not get the puck in as deep as we needed to get it or where guys were not playing to our program and they had a quick little spurt, but we came back and got a couple more goals.
“We were pretty comfortable with that lead.”
After winning the first six games against the Eskis this season, the Rock wanted to make sure they did not give Iroquois Falls any opportunities to build momentum early in Wednesday night’s contest.
“We knew they had a short bench coming into the game, so our plan was to try to get on them early,” Bisson said.
“I thought we played really well in the first period. We missed a couple of wide open nets on chances we could have buried. We thought we could have had a three- or four-goal lead after the first period.”
Bisson was impressed with the play of the Mathieu, Rendle, Sprague unit Wednesday night.
“That first line was exceptional tonight,” he said.
“They have been playing well since we put Sprague back on that line. Sprague played with them early in the year.”
Bernier was pleased with the way the Eskis played in the first period, but felt the effort in the second period could have been better.
“I thought our first period tonight was one of the better ones we have played in a long time,” he said.
“I thought we came out prepared both mentally and physically. Despite the fact we ended the period with a one-goal deficit, I thought we fought well.
“In the second period, we ran into some penalty trouble and, obviously, that’s kind of the story of the game. We dug ourselves a bit of a hole.
“In the third period we came out with a mission to try and win the period. We wanted to fight to the final horn and prove that we can compete with these guys.
“In all fairness to our guys, I thought we took the bitter half of some moments in the game in terms of discipline. At the same time, I thought our guys competed very well in the third period. I thought we were the dominant team in the third period. We just couldn’t climb out of the hole we had dug for ourselves.
“There were a lot of positives from tonight’s game. Obviously, we wanted to come out of it with the win, but at the end of the day if you can’t do that you want to come out with some learning experiences.
“We have got a lot of young guys who are developing and learning. We have been putting guys into positions they are not necessarily accustomed to being in with the short bench we had tonight.”
Even though Sparling surrendered three goals in the third period, he impressed his coach.
“I think he is going to be a very effective goalie at this level, for sure,” Bernier said.
“He is a great kid to have helping us out down the stretch here with the loss of (Artem) Bortovskiy. Putting him in gives the kid some opportunity and also gives Trevor some time to rest and get set for the next game.”
Bortovskiy was forced to leave the Eskis due to a family emergency and he is not expected to return this season.
Rogers turned aside 31 of the 35 shots he faced to pick up the win for the Rock.
Hawkes stopped 32 of the 37 shots the Rock fired his way in his 40 minutes of work and was tagged with the loss. Sparling blocked nine of the 12 shots he faced in relief.
NOJHL NOTES — The Rock did not dress forward Jacob Shankar (serving the third game of the four-game suspension he picked up for a kneeing infraction in a game against the Cochrane Crunch on Feb. 14) and goalie Jeff Veitch (illness) … The Daily Press Three Stars of the Game were Mathieu, Rendle and Sprague … The Rock went 2-8on the power play, while the Eskis were 1-2 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 637 … Wednesday night’s other action saw the Powassan Voodoos blank the Rapids 9-0 in French River and the Thunderbirds derail the Espanola Express 5-1 in Sault Ste. Marie … The Rock will return to action on Friday night when they travel to Powassan for a game against the Voodoos.