By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
IROQUOIS FALLS – Wayne Mathieu’s second goal of the game and 20th of the season with 20 seconds remaining in the first overtime period lifted the Timmins Rock to a 5-4 win over the Eskis Saturday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
It was the second-straight extra-time 5-4 victory for the Rock who dispatched the Blind River Beavers by the same score with less than a second remaining in double overtime Friday night.
Saturday night, Mathieu broke in two-on-one with linemate Jordan Rendle, but when the Eskis defender opted to stay in the middle to take the pass away, he stepped into a slap shot that beat Eskis goalie Artem Bortovskiy cleanly for the game-winning goal.
“They kind of fumbled the puck in the neutral zone and I picked it up,” Mathieu said.
“Rendle and I had a two-on-one and I decided to shoot. I just tried to put everything I had into it and it seemed to work.”
Bortovskiy and Rock netminder Jeff Veitch were both outstanding in the overtime frame, as the two teams abandoned defence in favour of fire-wagon hockey.
The line of Mathieu, Rendle and Cory Sprague accounted for four of the Rock’s five goals Saturday night.
“We played a good team game and we found a way to put the puck in the net tonight,” Mathieu said.
“The boys are really fired up and focused right now. We are playing every game like it is a playoff game right now.”
The Rock jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first period Saturday night, as Mathieu potted his 19th goal of the season at the 7:11 mark.
That’s the way the opening 20 minutes ended, but the Eskis came out flying in the second period to tie things up and then take a 2-1 lead with a pair of goals seven seconds apart.
Ryan Forsythe’s third goal of the season dead-locked the score and then Samuel Vigneux put the home side in front when he scored his fourth goal of the season.
The Rock battled back to tie things up at 2-2 six minutes later when Rendle scored his 24th goal of the season.
Timmins had an excellent opportunity to retake the lead with 4:30 remaining in the middle frame, as forward Cory Sprague was hauled down on a breakaway and awarded a penalty shot.
Bortovskiy was up to the challenge, however, and made a right-pad save to keep the score tied.
His team rewarded him by taking the lead with just 1:01 remaining in the second period, as Alex Mitsionis scored his 13th goal of the season to send the Eskis to the dressing room for the second intermission up 3-2.
The Rock got back on even terms midway through the third period, as Dean Kiriacou scored his third goal of the season.
Dillan Bruce gave Eskis fans hope that they might witness their first win over the Rock this season with 4:12 remaining in the contest when he scored his 23rd goal of the season.
It would not stand up, however, as the Rock were able to get the puck past Bortovskiy with 2:28 remaining on the clock off a wild scramble in front the Eskis’ net that saw Sprague credited with his 19th goal of the season.
That set the stage for Mathieu’s overtime heroics.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne acknowledged Saturday night’s contest was almost as exciting as Friday night’s last-second victory.
“It was entertaining,” he said.
“The fans saw a pretty good hockey game. It was another nail-biter. It was almost like pond hockey, with us playing four-on-four like that.
“Our strategy was that we didn’t come here for one point. We were going for it and our D were jumping up into the play. We knew we had the one point, so we were going for that second point. That’s why the play was so open.”
That second point allowed the Rock (27-11-3-0) to pull within six points of the idle Cochrane Crunch (29-11-4-1) for second place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings, and the Rock still have four games in hand on their rivals.
“It was very important for us to get that second point,” Gagne said.
“We want to finish in second place. We want home-ice advantage in the playoffs. That’s our motivation right now. If we keep playing the way we are right now, with everybody on the same page, we can do it.”
Despite picking up a single point, the Eskis (15-25-3-0) fell another point behind the fourth-place Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (20-20-4-2). The gap between the likely Division Qualifier opponents now stands at 13 points, although the Eskis do have three games in hand.
Gagne was impressed with a number of Rock players Saturday night.
“Rendle put in a good effort, as he always does,” he said.
“He had his mojo tonight. You could tell he was really involved.
“And Kiriacou is really coming along. We are happy with his progress. He is starting to be a little bit more comfortable in the program and he is starting to move the puck a little bit more.
“Mathieu, obviously, is on a roll right now. He is playing really well.
“On defence, we were struggling a little bit, but we started moving the puck a little bit more. When we don’t move the puck well, we tend to get into trouble. Progressively, we started to move it better as the game went on.
“And our goalie (Veitch) might like to have the fourth goal back, but that was a goal scorer’s shot. You have to give credit to the shooter. He made some big saves in overtime, but he did the same thing last night.
“What I like about Veitch is that he has been working really hard in practice. We got two victories this weekend and he faced a lot of shots and he made some big saves to keep us in both games.”
Eskis coach and assistant general manager Jamy Bernier knows his team came close to finally knocking off the Rock Saturday night.
“We had a lot of chances,” he said.
“We just didn’t find the back of the net early enough in overtime. Bortovskiy came up with some huge saves on multiple occasions, but unfortunately we ended up on the wrong side of a bounce once again.
“I think this is our third overtime loss since the Christmas break. We are just going to have to find a way to put ourselves ahead. Our guys are not complacent with what we picked up here tonight. They really show resilience and I believe in that group we are putting out there.
“There are some small hiccups, some small misplays that are costing us goals, but we are seeing a lot of good things here. We are headed in the right direction.”
Despite the overtime loss, Bernier was pleased with the effort put forth by a number of Eskis Saturday night.
“Our fourth line, with Sam Vigneux, Ryan Forsythe and Cam Boutin, was absolutely phenomenal,” he said.
“They gave us two goals tonight on the same shift and every other shift they were out there, they were making something happen. They were really giving the opposition a hard time.”
Veitch turned aside 33 of the 37 shots he faced to earn the victory for the Rock.
Bortovskiy blocked 43 of the 48 shots the Rock fired his way and was tagged with the overtime loss.
NOJHL NOTES — The Rock did not dress goalie Albert Rogers (upper-body), defencemen Brandon Campbell (serving the second game of a two-game suspension picked up on Jan. 21 in Powassan) and Spencer Segui (upper-body), as well as forward Tyler Romain (undisclosed). In addition, the Rock lost forward Maxime Lague during the contest, as he continues to battle a flu bug … The three stars of the game were Mathieu, Rendle and Bortovskiy … The Rock went 0-4 on the power play, while the Eskis were also 0-4 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the Jus Jordan Arena was 345 … Saturday night’s other action saw the Gold Miners thump the Rapids 12-1 in French River and the Eagles triple the Rayside-Balfour Canadians 6-2 in Sault, Mich. … The Rock will return to action Thursday night when they host the Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena.