By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Timmins Rock fans will get their first — and likely only — look at the new and improved Beavers when Blind River invades the McIntyre Arena Friday night.
The only way the Rock and the Beavers will meet again is if Timmins emerges as East Division champions and Blind River captures the West Division title — a prospect both Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne and Beavers coach Kyle Brick would likely welcome.
To say the Beavers have come a long way since they went 0-51-1-0 during the 2014-15 season might be the understatement of the century.
Heading into Friday night’s contest, the Beavers (25-16-1-0) are a solid second in the West Division, 10 points back of the Soo Thunderbirds, and they have already clinched a playoff berth.
A lot of that success can be traced back to the hiring of Brick, a former assistant coach with the Thunderbirds, as head coach prior to the start of the 2016-17 campaign.
“When I accepted the job and when I took over the hockey team, I really wanted to change the culture,” he said.
“From what I had learned, the past couple of years with the Beavers losing had become acceptable. We wanted to change that and it started by making all the players accountable for their actions on and off the ice and it seems to be working out as good as we had hoped to this point in the season. We are pretty happy with where we are at.”
Brick hopes, of course, the Beavers will continue their upward trajectory as the regular season winds down.
“Most teams are going to want to peak in the playoffs and I definitely think we are heading in the right direction,” Brick said.
“We had two big wins this past weekend during a home-and-home series with the Soo Eagles. I am really happy with where our compete level is at right now. Our players have all bought into the system we have been trying to teach them and we are at the point where they are really comfortable with each other.”
An influx of talent at every position on the ice, of course, has been just as important as the arrival of Brick in the organization.
“We worked really hard this summer to bring in some quality hockey players,” he said.
“We have Yianni Liarakos (41, 29-31-60, 46), from southern Ontario, who is second in the league in scoring right now. He has been a leader on and off the ice for us.
“The same goes for Cole Peck (42, 4-24-28, 10), a 20-year-old defencemanfrom Ottawa. He has been a rock all year.
“Without guys like that, our season wouldn’t be where it is.”
While the Beavers pretty well cleaned house prior to the season, they brought back three players who are quite familiar to Brick and his coaching staff.
“We kept the Khulls — Max (42, 17-32-49, 78), Mark (28, 5-2-7, 33) and Steven (39, 6-12-18, 46) — because I knew them on a personal level and I knew what their character was,” Brick said.
“Otherwise, I wanted to bring in guys who I had recruited so that I would know what I was getting with them. I really wanted to wipe the slate clean from the last couple of years and really start over.”
For the record, Max and Mark are brothers and Steven is their cousin.
A big part of the Beavers’ success this season has been the goaltending of Myles Hektor (1,741:00, 18-9-1-0, 2, 2.83, .913) and Aidan Doak (647:00, 7-5-0-0, 1, 2.32, .938), who was named one of the Eastlink Three Stars of the Week in the NOJHL this week.
“Myles is underrated and his numbers are phenomenal,” Brick said.
“He has really been our guy since the start of the year and with him being only 18 and this being his first year of Junior ‘A,’ we are extremely happy with what he has brought to the table for us. When things were a little touch and go at the start of the season, he won us hockey games that we might not have won without him.
“And I can’t leave Aidan Doak out of the picture. He is a guy we acquired in November and he has come in as a 20-year-old goalie and put up some great numbers, especially in the past couple of games, as well.
“We are really happy with our goaltending tandem and we feel comfortable with whoever is in the net on any given net on any given night.”
Doak got the start and made 46 saves when the Beavers beat the Rock 7-6 during Timmins’ only visit to Blind River back on Nov. 11.
“We were a little bit fortunate in that game,” Brick said.
“They were fresh off the bus on a Friday night and we were able to jump on them. We hopped out to a 5-1 lead and when Timmins decided they wanted to play, the game ended up being 7-6.”
The Beavers realize beating the Rock at the McIntyre Arena will likely be a little more challenging.
“We understand they are a really good team, one of the best in the East Division, so we just need to be ready to compete and be prepared for their speed,” Brick said.
“They are relentless on the puck and we need to make sure we have our options open to relieve some of that pressure. From the game tape I have been watching, they are hard on pucks and they are in on it right away. We have been working on some things in practice to make those passes out of our zone a little bit easier. Hopefully, the boys will bring that to the table on Friday night.
“If you are not willing to move the puck quickly and move your feet against the Rock, then you are going to be in trouble.”
Gagne has plenty of respect for the Beavers and what they have been able to accomplish so far this season.
“They have got 25 wins, which is the same amount as we have,” he said.
“They have scored quite a few goals and they are a team that does not allow too many goals against, so we are going to have our hands full, that’s for sure.”
The Rock will be looking to get off to a fast start Friday night in hopes of avoiding any four-goal deficits, like the one they were faced with in Blind River on Nov. 11.
“No excuses, but there was some travel involved the last time we played them,” Gagne said.
“We are just going to have to play the type of hockey we like to play at home, with a strong forecheck and our magic down low. We are going to have to get shots on their goalie and get some traffic in front of their net.”
The Rock have made great strides in their defensive zone and held their opponents to just two goals in each of their past two games.
“We have worked hard and tweaked our program a little bit more,” Gagne said.
“And we know it is just a matter of time before we are going to get on the scoresheet. Playing good defence will give us good opportunities offensively.”
Indeed, putting the puck in the net has not been an issue this season for the Rock who lead the NOJHL with 197 goals scored.
And the team boasts nine forwards — Tyler Romain (39, 24-29-53, 29), captain Jordan Rendle (37, 23-22-45, 56), Bain Cunningham (39, 13-32-45, 37), Wayne Mathieu (37, 18-21-39, 16), Cole Gilligan (39, 19-15-34, 2), Jacob Shankar (34, 16-18-34, 21), Alexandre Brisson (37, 16-18-34, 32), Stewart Parnell (37, 6-28-34, 16) and Cory Sprague (37, 17-14-31, 48) — who have cracked the 30-point barrier already this season.
To some extent, the Beavers beat the Rock at their own game when they met on Nov. 11.
“Their forecheck was incredible,” Gagne said.
“It was awesome. They were running with four Ds at the time and they were pretty good defencemen.”
In addition to Liarakos and the three Khulls, the Beavers also have a number of other offensive weapons — including Zak Lambrecht (41, 23-20-43, 20, Caleb Serre (39, 12-18-30, 18), Dylan McMahon (38, 9-15-24, 56), Anthony Pullicino (36, 12-11-23, 68) and Mark Bastianello (41, 14-7-21, 17) — that the Rock will have to keep a close eye on Friday night.
Neither of the goalies the Rock used during their 7-6 loss to the Beavers in Blind River on Nov. 11 — Matthew Nixon and affiliate Dante Garito — are currently with the team.
Albert Rogers (1,398:00, 9-11-3-1, 0, 3.65, .912, overall; 853:00, 8-4-2-0, 0, 2.81, .921, with Rock) has firmly entrenched himself as the team’s starter, while Jeff Veitch (660:00, 4-3-1-1, 0 3.63, .888, overall; 190:00, 1-1-1, 0, 4.73, .885) beat out Nixon for the back-up role.
Based on the results of this past weekend’s two-game road trip, Gagne is encouraged about his team’s chances this weekend against the Beavers Friday night and the Eskis in Iroquois Falls Saturday night.
“We got our mojo back and we had everyone on board and playing great,” he said.
“The sacrifice and the commitment was there. We competed really well.”
The Rock were without the services of Rendle for Friday night’s 4-2 win over the Rapids in French River and Saturday night’s 2-1 loss to the Voodoos in Powassan as he battled the flu, but he is back practising and should return to the lineup against the Beavers.
Newly acquired forward Maxime Lague (2, 0-0-0, 0) on the other hand has been bitten by the bug, hasn’t been able to practise and will likely miss both weekend games.
Defenceman Spencer Segui (upper-body) also remains out and will not see any action against the Beavers or the Eskis.
The Beavers do not have any injuries, but they will be without the services of forward Andrew Trowbridge (34, 1-5-6, 11) Friday night, as he serves a one-game suspension he picked up for being assessed an instigator penalty during Saturday night’s 5-2 win at Puller Stadium in Sault, Mich.
Like the Rock, the Beavers have been battling the flu bug.