By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Wildlife experts will tell you there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal and coming off a 17-3 setback against the Soo Eagles at the Blind River Community Centre Sunday afternoon the Beavers would certainly appear to fall into that category.
It was the seventh-straight loss for a NOJHL squad that didn’t win a single game during the 2014-15 campaign, but has an improved 6-28-3-0 record this year and sits in fifth place in the league’s West Division standings.
So, despite the recent stretch of futility, coach and general manager Paul Gagne is not about to let his Rock players look past the Beavers when they pay their first visit of the 2015-16 campaign to the McIntyre Arena Thursday night.
“Over the years, we have preached to the players to never take anything for granted,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter who you play against, you still have to bring your A game. It will be the same thing Thursday night. We are going to have to be ready.”
The Rock won their only meeting with the Beavers this season, a 5-1 decision in Blind River on Dec. 20.
During that contest, the Rock received goals from five different players — Devin Panzeca, Jordan Rendle, Bain Cunningham, Wayne Mathieu and defenceman Jared Hester — with only blue-liners Ryan Kerr and Joe Olson, who each had a pair of assists, picking up more than a single point.
“Even though the score was 5-1, it was a tight game,” Gagne said.
“They (the Beavers) were finishing their checks. Their forecheck was great. They are well coached (by Brad Barton) and they play a good, structured game.”
Special teams played a key role in that contest, with the Rock going 2-6 on the power play and killing off all five of the Beavers’ opportunities with the man advantage.
Rock goaltender Logan Ferrington made 30 saves, while Matt Blattenberger (456:00, 2-6-0-0, 1, 5.66, .896), of the Beavers, turned aside 34 of the 39 shots he faced.
At first glance, Blattenberger’s stats might not look all that impressive, but he made 64 saves back on Dec. 5 to blank the NOJHL’s top team, the Soo Thunderbirds, 1-0 at the Blind River Community Centre.
He also made 49 saves during the Beavers 5-3 loss to the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie on Dec. 16.
The Beavers other netminder, Martin Miloslavich (1,033, 3-14-0-0, 0, 5.99, .864) has also had his moments this season.
Gagne realizes either Blattenberger or Miloslavich is capable of stealing a game.
“The first few games Blattenberger played, he was facing 50 or 60 shots,” he said.
“If we run into a hot goalie, the pressure is going to be on us. The kids will start squeezing their sticks.”
In fact, you could argue goaltending and team defence have not been the Beavers’ Achilles heel this season so much as their inability to put the puck in the net.
The Beavers have only two players — Max Khull (37, 13-15-28, 28) and Ted Davis (31, 10-5-15, 6) — on their roster who have scored 10 or more goals this season, and only four others with at least 15 points — Joseph Eben (37, 8-10-18, 76), Cole Murray (36, 9-8-17, 10), Alex Dajia (35, 4-12-16, 28) and Jason Uhl (29, 3-13-16, 27).
And two of those latter four, Murray and Dajia, are defencemen.
“They need a little bit more skill, but if you don’t play well against them as a five-man unit, you are asking for trouble,” Gagne said.
“They will keep the game close. They have kids who work hard and show up 100% of the time. Their coach really motivates them.
“If they had two or three players who could really put the puck in the net, it would really make a difference for them sometimes during games.
“We are going to have to play our game plan and stay with it for the full 60 minutes. That means employing a great forecheck and keeping the puck in the offensive zone, spend less time in our defensive zone, and get some shots on net.”
By comparison, the Rock have a pair of 20-plus-goal snipers in Tristan Salesse (28, 22-29-51, 12) and Rendle (33, 22-20-42, 36), as well as four other players — Zachary Kercz (36, 18-41-59, 60), Cunningham (35, 19-16-35, 30), Ryan Theriault (30, 15-18-33, 24) and Panzeca (29, 17-10-27, 6) — with more than 15 goals on the season.
And let’s not forget perhaps the team’s best sniper, Aaron Kerr (7, 7-4-11, 2), who is averaging a goal a game since joining the Rock from the Drummondville Voltigeurs, of the QMJHL.
And the Rock can even roll out three blue-liners — Ryan Kerr (30, 5-24-29, 26), Joe Olson (30, 2-17-19, 33) and Andrew Castagna (35, 4-12-16, 21) — who have more than 15 points on the season.
There is no arguing, either, that over the course of the season the Rock’s goaltending trio of Ferrington (1,290, 14-7-1-0, 1, 3.30, .916), Matthew Nixon (740, 7-5-0-0, 0, 3.73, .901) and Devon Debastos (20:00, 0-0-0-0, 0, 0.00, 1.000) has been far more consistent and effective.
Even affiliate goalie Bradley Dobson (99:00 1-1-0-0, 1, 1.82, .949) and Mike Gresko (20:00, 0-0-0-0, 3.00, .909) were impressive during their time with the squad.
The Rock may not know until Thursday whether or not Ferrington, who suffered an upper-body injury during Saturday night’s game against the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, will be available to play.
Gagne would like to see the Rock get off to a fast start Thursday night to avoid giving the Beavers any momentum or life early in the contest.
“Right now, we are playing without any momentum killers, meaning we are not taking stupid penalties and we are not missing our assignments,” he said.
“Everybody is on cue with our program. Hopefully, we can prevent them from gaining any momentum by playing our program and frustrating them, forechecking them, driving to the net, making good passes and not turning over the puck.
“If we are doing those things, we are going to have puck possession and if we have puck possession, they are the ones who are going to have to hook, trip, hold us and chase the puck.
“It is a very simple game plan.”
The Rock have two full days of practice to get ready for the Beavers and Gagne is hoping to reinforce the good habits the team has been displaying during its current hot streak.
“When you are on a roll like we are now, it’s a pleasure coaching,” Gagne said.
“The guys are really focused and they know what to expect. If they make a little mistake, they know it.
“We are trying to keep things on the positive side. If one of our players makes a little mistake, then the odds are they are going to complete 10 good assignments that will outweigh that little mistake.
“When the kids are focused like that, you play some pretty good hockey.”
Thursday night’s contest will begin a stretch that will see the Rock play three games in less than four days, as they will travel to Cochrane for a game against the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre Saturday night and then return home to host the Iroquois Falls Eskis at the McIntyre Arena Sunday afternoon.
“It may sound a little cliche, but we have to take things one day at a time,” Gagne said.
“The players know their short-term objectives for Thursday and then on Friday we will have a tactical practice and to get ready for Cochrane on Saturday and Iroquois Falls on Sunday.”
The Rock will be without the services of Salesse for all three games, as he serves the fifth, sixth and seventh games of the seven-game suspension he picked up at the end of a game in Sault, Mich., on Dec. 18.