Rock face busy weekend

Goalie Brendan Bishop, shown here in action against the Hearst Lumberjacks during an NOJHL exhibition game at the McIntyre Arena on Aug. 31, recorded some impressive preseason stats. He posted a 1.98 goals against average and a .945 saves percentage. Both Bishop and Eric Jackson are expected to see action this weekend when the Rock host the French River Rapids Friday night, the Lumberjacks Saturday night and the Soo Thunderbirds Sunday at 3 p.m. However, coach Corey Beer is not divulging which goalie will start which games. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)

TIMMINS – The conditioning of the Timmins Rock will be put to the test right off the bat, as they play three home games in three nights at the McIntyre Arena to kick off their 2017-18 NOJHL campaign.

Friday night, the Rock will host a revamped French River Rapids squad looking to put a woeful 3-51-1-1 campaign that saw them finish dead last in the East Division standings behind them.

The following night, the Hearst Lumberjacks — formerly known as the Iroquois Falls Eskis (16-36-4-0) — will visit the McIntyre Arena and on Sunday the 2016-17 West Division champion Soo Thunderbirds (43-11-1-1) will conclude a three-game road trip with a stop in Timmins at 3 p.m.

“It’s always exciting to get the chance to play some meaningful hockey,” said new Rock coach Corey Beer.

“There is no better way to test our players conditioning than to throw them right in the fire and see how they react.

“We feel confident we have a roster that will allow us to use our depth and make sure everyone gets into the games.

“Despite playing three games in three nights, we are feeling pretty good about making sure we can maintain the pace we want to play at throughout the weekend. We will see how we do, but I am definitely excited to see how the guys respond to this test.”

Heading into the weekend, the Rock have 13 forwards, seven defencemen and two goalies on their roster, plus with the GNML’s Timmins Majors idle there likely would be no issue with using affiliate players should the need arise.

The status of forward Halen Cordoni (2, 0-1-1, 0), who is nursing a lower-body injury, remains the only health concern heading into the weekend.

“We are going to get him into a contact practice today (Thursday) and we hope he will be cleared for the weekend,” Beer said.

“At this point, he is the only health issue thus far.”

During their four-game exhibition season, the Rock had six forwards — C.J. Bradburn (4, 2-4-6, 0), Wayne Mathieu (3, 3-1-4, 0), Linden Spencer (4, 2-2-4, 0), Donny Schultz (4, 1-3-4, 4), Derek Seguin (2, 3-0-3, 0) and Alexandre Brisson (4, 1-2-3, 6) — who picked up at least three points.

“Any time you have have that kind of scoring depth in your lineup, it presents so many good opportunities to throw different combinations out there on the ice,” Beer said.

“We are looking to really exploit having that scoring depth spread throughout our lineup.

“If one of our top lines is getting shut down, it’s nice to know we have that kind of secondary scoring available for insurance.

“That way, we are not relying on two or three guys to win us games every night. We are really excited about the kind of skill we have on this roster.”

The Rock also got points from four of their seven defencemen — Jared Hester (3, 1-2-3, 2), Grant McClellan (3, 1-1-2, 8), Shawn Sloan (4, 1-0-1, 0) and Will Caston (4, 0-1-1, 0) — in the exhibition season, as well.

Both Rock goalies Brendan Bishop (91:04, 1-0-0-0, 0, 1.98, .945) and Eric Jackson (88:56, 2-0-0-0, 0, 2.71, .918) were solid in the preseason and fans can expect to see them each in action this weekend — although Beer stopped short identifying which netminder would face which teams.

“Both guys will get their own game and then we will see how things go with the third game,” he said.

“In true gamesmanship, I am not going to tip my hand and let everyone know who is getting the nod Friday night. That will stay between our staff and our goalies for now.

“Both guys are very deserving of being in there and gaining the experience of playing in front of large, hometown crowds. We like where they are at right now.”

Even though the Rock will not have an opportunity to practice between the first and second game or the second and third game, their attention is 100% focused on Friday night’s season opener against the Rapids.

“If we look past anybody, we are doing a disservice to ourselves,” Beer said.

“Everything we are doing right now is geared toward French River. They have a good team and a real good coach (former NHL player Ken Strong) who has come in, as well.

“We know what they are going to be able to do. I have had a chance to watch them in the preseason and they have certainly improved their overall skill level and they are playing with better pace.”

The Rapids have a new ownership group, with Paul Frustaglio serving as team president and director and long-time hockey man Sherry Bassin joining the franchise as director of hockey operations.

Only a handful of players — including 20-year-old defenceman Eric Paquette (32, 1-7-8, 17), who is entering his third year with the franchise, and forward Jordan Picard (49, 11-20-31, 27), a Timmins native — are back with the Rapids.

Among the newcomers to the French River lineup are goalie Spencer Eschyschyn, acquired from the English River Miners, of the SIJHL, and defensemen Connor Loft and Stephen Calisti. They both played Midget ‘AAA’ in the GTHL last season, Loft with the Mississauga Reps and Calisti with the Toronto Nats.

“The first thing that stands out with the Rapids is their work ethic,” Beer said.

“They have a tight-checking team and they will make things difficult for us in the offensive zone. If we get any Grade A scoring opportunities, we are going to have to cash in on them. I don’t know that we will get too many because they are playing good defence right now.

“Their energy level is up, too. One thing you always run into at the start of the season is everyone is geared up. Everyone is 0-0-0-0. Everyone thinks they have a chance at being the best team in the division or in the league.”

The Rapids split a pair of exhibition games with the Espanola Express, winning 4-2 and losing 3-2, and they were swept by the defending NOJHL champion Powassan Voodoos, losing 8-4 and 6-3.

With more than 600 tickets having been sold for Friday’s home opener by Wednesday, a circus-like atmosphere is almost guaranteed to greet the teams.

“Hopefully, it is something our players can feed off of,” Beer said.

“More times than not, when you have that home crowd backing you it gets your energy level up. Hopefully, we can rise to the occasion and take advantage of that. Everyone knows the first goal of a game is important, but if you get it on your home ice in front of a raucous crowd, it does wonders for your team emotionally.”

Having played them twice in exhibition action, the Lumberjacks — Saturday’s opponents — are clearly the team the Rock are most familiar with at this point.

After opening exhibition play with a 6-5 overtime loss to the Crunch and edging Cochrane 4-3 in the rematch, the Rock swept a pair of games from Hearst — winning 6-2 on home ice and then 4-2 at the Claude Larose Arena.

“I am sure they will make some adjustments,” Beer said.

“Marc Lafleur is a tremendous coach. He has Team Canada experience and he is a very good tactician.

“They have some real top-end forwards and when you look at their depth throughout the lineup, that’s a very good team. They have some real good defencemen, too.

“They are a team we are going to face multiple times this season and we are going to have to be prepared.”

Prior to being swept by the Rock, the Lumberjacks opened their exhibition season with a 4-2 home-ice victory over the Crunch.

Two key veterans back in the lineup for the Lumberjacks are forward Shadow Reuben (55, 33-45-78, 28), who tied for second in the NOJHL scoring race, and goalie Artem Bortovskiy (1344:00, 8-9-3-0, 0, 3.97, .912).

The impressive newcomers to the Lumberjacks’ lineup include forwards Max Griffioen, acquired from Lambton Shores, of the GOJHL, and Trevor Golant, who played high school hockey in Minnesota. Former Kapuskasing Flyer Samuel Bourdages, a Hearst native, also looked good during exhibition play.

“They are a very hard forechecking team,” Beer said.

“They have guys who take away our time and space when we want to hang onto the puck. We may have to make some tweaks on the fly, but I have been pretty impressed with our guys so far.

“Our guys have done a pretty good job of taking the information we have given them in practice and implementing it in games.

“From a familiarity standpoint, it should be easy for our guys to get up for the Hearst game. We played two hard-fought games against them in the preseason.”

The Thunderbirds, like the Voodoos, made considerable changes to their roster during the off season, but they remain one of the favourites to finish atop the West Division standings.

Sporting a new logo and new team colours, the Thunderbirds will also have a new coach behind the bench, as John Parco replaces Jordan Smith who left to accept an assistant coaching position with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.

Among the more impressive newcomers in the Thunderbirds lineup are forwards Braden Robbins, who was acquired from the Springfield Jr. Pics, of the USPHL, and Brendan Miller, a graduate of the Soo Indians Midget ‘AAA’ squad, as well as defenceman Ryan Lawrence, picked up from Meijer, of the NAPHL.

Like the Rock, the Thunderbirds will be playing their third game in three nights when they take to the ice at the McIntyre Arena on Sunday — all on the road after opening in Hearst Friday night and tangling with the Crunch in Cochrane Saturday night.

“By that point, I am sure both teams will be running on fumes,” Beer said.

“We will see what kind of energy level each team has. Hopefully, ours will be a bit higher with us being at home and not having to travel.

“They definitely have an elite program in the NOJHL. They have been tremendous representatives of this league at Dudley-Hewitt Cups and RBC Cups in the past.

“We are very aware of the high-end talent they bring in year after year. Getting them on our third game in three nights, maybe with tired legs, is going to be a tough one for us. The first five minutes of that game will be a good gauge of where we are at.”

Beer had an opportunity to watch one of the Thunderbirds exhibition games against the Soo Eagles and he was impressed by what he saw.

“It was a tremendous game, with both sides showing a very high skill level,” he said.

“They have a lot of speed and that’s something we are going to have to be very cognisant of on the defensive end. We will have to understand who their top guys are and ensure we shut them down.

“We have to make sure we don’t fall asleep in our own end and allow them quality scoring chances. The certainly have the high-end skill to finish against us.”

The Thunderbirds split their two exhibition games against the Eagles, winning 4-3 on Sept. 1 and then dropping a 5-3 decision the following night.

NOJHL NOTES — The Friday and Saturday games will start at 7 p.m., with Sunday’s getting underway at 3 p.m. … Fans attending each game will receive a Timmins Rock hockey card, with the player featured being on hand for an autograph session following the contest … Beer’s former club, the defending RBC Cup champion Cobourg Cougars are ranked No. 5 in the CJHL preseason Top 20 rankings. The Voodoos, at No. 18, are the only NOJHL squad on the list, although the Elliot Lake Wildcats received honourable mention.