By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Newcomers Cory Sprague and Marcus Blackned each scored twice and dished out an assist as the Timmins Rock doubled the French River Rapids 6-3 Friday night at the McIntyre Arena.
With the victory, the Rock improve to 1-1-0-0 on the season, while the Rapids, who are 0-4-0-0 on the year, are still seeking their first victory.
The two sides exchanged a pair of first-period goals, with Sprague beating Rapids starting netminder Al Rogers for his second goal of the season 6:47 into the frame.
“My linemates (Jordan Rendle and Bain Cunningham) are doing a great job of creating space for me and giving me opportunities to put the puck away,” Sprague said.
“Our line is clicking really well and hopefully we can keep it up.”
Rendle and Cunningham formed two-thirds of one of the Rock’s top offensive units last season and Sprague appears to be meshing well with them.
“I try to go out there and bring some energy to the line,” he said.
“I always try to go out there and give 100% every shift I am on the ice, grind in the corners, get the puck out and score when I have to score.”
Two games into the 2016-17 NOJHL regular season, that attitude has made Sprague a fan favourite.
The Rapids battled back to tie things up at 1-1 before the end of the period, however, as Jacob Uridil beat Rock starting goalie Matthew Nixon for his first goal of the season just over eight minutes later.
Despite allowing just the one goal and the game being tied at 1-1, Nixon was given the hook between periods, with Caleb Barris coming on to start the middle frame for Timmins.
A three-goal outburst by the Rock in the first 2:48 of the second period spelled the end of Rogers night and gave the home side a lead they would not surrender.
“We knew if we kept coming at them hard, the goals were going to come for us,” Sprague said.
Former Timmins Eagles goalie Scott Adams came off the Rapids bench to take over in net for the visitors, as Rogers first went to the Rapids bench and then left for the dressing room with one of the Rock trainers assisting him.
Blackned’s second goal of the season started the chain reaction and Sprague added his second of the night and third of the season just over a minute later.
Rendle, the Rock’s captain, netted his first goal of the season 19 seconds later and by the time the ice chips had settled the home side was up 4-1.
Defenceman Jared Hester’s goal midway through the second period extended the Rock lead to 5-1, but the Caleb Rich scored with just 17.7 seconds remaining in the frame to provide the visitors with a little hope heading into the game’s final 20 minutes.
Blackned netted his second goal of the night and third on the season, to put the Rock in front 6-2.
It took the Rapids just over a minute to respond to that marker, however, as Austin Hickner scored to cut the Rock lead to three goals and make the final 6-3 in favour of the home side.
Rock assistant coach Marc Bisson was pleased to see his boys pick up a big victory, especially after they played well enough to win in their first game of the season but came up empty.
“We pride ourselves on a good forecheck and getting pucks in deep,” he said.
“We were able to put pressure on them today, especially in the first period although the score was not really indicative of the play and who controlled things.
“We came out strong again in the second period and kept up a good forecheck, the turnovers came and we were able to capitalize on them.”
Bisson was impressed with the play of both Sprague and Blackned Friday night.
“Marcus really has a touch around the net and Cory is just a hard worker who has good skills,” he said.
“He missed a few chances tonight in addition to the goals he did have. I think Bain and Jordan, playing with him, were back to their usual selves tonight, as well.
“They had very good games and Hester, on the back end, is somebody else who deserves a mention. He had a goal and an assist and he played well at both ends of the ice.”
Bisson was also impressed with the play of the Rock’s newest blue-liner, Cameron Crowley, who made his debut against the Rapids.
“He only had a chance to practise with us once, but Cameron looked really good out there tonight. He finished some checks and we used him on the penalty kill. He is a real team guy and he does have some offensive upside to his game. I think he is going to fit in great here.”
The assistant coach was also impressed with the tenacity of Wayne Mathieu Friday night, especially on the penalty kill.
“At one point, I think he was one on four he kept the puck tied up in their zone for about 30 seconds,” Bisson said.
“He is not the biggest guy, but he is one of our hardest workers. He has a big heart and he is really important to our team.
“When the fans give him a loud round of applause like they did after that shift, you know every fan here recognizes the hard work he puts in.”
Bisson, who works with the Rock goaltenders, felt a change was needed following the first period of play.
“We were just looking to change things up a little bit,” he said.
“Matthew gave up a rebound or two we weren’t pleased with in the first period and Caleb has been working hard in practice, so we decided to make a change to see if it would help with the momentum and it did.”
Rapids coach Moe Mantha felt his team did not do what it needed to do Friday night to give itself an opportunity to win.
“We have a young team and we really hurt ourselves taking some selfish penalties and as a result, they got their momentum going,” he said.
“We took ourselves out of the game by taking too many selfish penalties.”
Despite the Rapids’ 0-4-0-0 start to the season, Mantha has not lost faith in his squad.
“We have a lot of skill and we have a lot of nice talent, but we have got to start learning this isn’t youth hockey anymore,” he said.
“This is Junior ‘A’ hockey and we have got to start learning to play together as a team and a five-man unit.
“Right now, we are paying the price as a young team that has to learn to play the game of hockey.”
What positives can the Rapids take out of Friday night’s 6-3 road loss?
“Not many,” Mantha said.
“We didn’t play our team game. We got frustrated and started playing as individuals. There are a lot of good teaching clips to show from tonight’s game.”
Barris turned aside 25 of the 27 shots he faced to pick up the win for the Rock in relief of Nixon who stopped 12 of the 14 shots the Rapids fired his way.
Rogers blocked 17 of the 21 Rock shots he faced and was tagged with the loss. Adams redirected 32 of the 34 shots he faced in relief.
NOJHL NOTES — Official attendance at Friday night’s game was 684 … The three starts of the game were Sprague, Blackned and Rendle … Friday night’s other NOJHL action saw the Crunch edge the Rayside-Balfour Canadians 4-3 in double overtime in Cochrane, the Gold Miners dump the Iroquois Falls Eskis 6-1 in Kirkland Lake, the Wildcats get past the Blind River Beavers 5-2 in Elliot Lake and the Soo Thunderbirds thump the Soo Eagles in Sault, Mich. … The Rock will return to action on Thursday night when they host the Powassan Voodoos at the McIntyre Arena. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.