By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Which team will the Timmins Rock host at the McIntyre Arena Friday night?
Will it be the the Rayside-Balfour squad that ran off four-straight victories to start the 2015-16 NOJHL season or the Canadians team that dropped all three games during last weekend’s three-game swing through the North — including a 6-3 setback against the Eskimos in Iroquois Falls Friday night?
The Rock know all-too-well what can happen if you don’t bring your A game with you when you visit the Jus Jordan Arena.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne also has an idea of what his squad can expect from the Canadians after they dropped both ends of a home-and-home exhibition series against Rayside-Balfour.
“The first game (a 7-1 loss at the McIntyre Arena) we played them, I think we were a little caught off guard,” he said.
“Their forechecking was incredible. They were jumping on the puck. They were protecting the puck. They were backchecking well. They were all over us.
“They have a big team and they were hitting and making things happen out there. Like I said, I think we were sort of caught off guard. Anything we tried to do, they took it away from us.”
The Rock played a lot better in their second exhibition game against the Canadians, but still dropped a 5-4 decision in Sudbury.
“It was night and day,” Gagne said.
“We came out and we competed. We had our opportunities. We had the lead in the hockey game, twice I believe. We had our game going, which was great, but it just goes to show you have to compete.
“You have to bring your A game and that is what we did. So, Friday night we are going to have to make sure we don’t sit back and watch them give it to us like they did the game here last time.”
The Rock will be looking to jump on the Canadians early and not let them get any momentum Friday night.
“When we have had success this season, our forecheck has been working well and we have been playing more often in the offensive zone or the neutral zone,” Gagne said.
“We have to get the puck out of our zone quickly and then it has to be puck pursuit, puck pursuit, puck pursuit.
“That has been what we have been doing and we have the forwards to do it. It is kind of nice. We have four lines and they are all capable of doing it.
“When we are all in sync, doing the same thing, we make fewer mistakes.”
One of the forwards Gagne was referring two is Ryan Theriault (2, 2-2-4, 2), the Sudbury native who was with the Canadians for those two exhibition games, traded to the Whitby Fury, of the OJHL, and then acquired by the Rock from the Fury on Sept. 21.
Theriault has been playing the right side on the Rock’s top line with Tristan Salesse (7, 7-6-13, 2) and Zachary Kercz (8, 6-7-13, 8).
Salesse missed Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Soo Thunderbirds but he is expected to be back in the lineup against the Canadians Friday night.
Defenceman Ryan Kerr (2,0-0-0, 0), who has been out with an upper-body injury, is also expected to return, while the status of forward Cole Gilligan (2, 0-0-0, 0), out with an upper-body injury, and defenceman Tyler Sommers, recovering from off-season surgery, is unknown.
Another player who will be in the lineup Friday night who was not with the Rock when they faced the Canadians in exhibition action is defenceman Joe Olson (2, 0-1-1, 4), who was reacquired from the Steinbach Pistons, of the MJHL, on Sept. 23.
“I think we have some depth on our D this year,” said Olson, who finished out the 2014-15 season with the Abitibi Eskimos.
“Obviously we didn’t have the game we wanted to yesterday (Sunday), but we are looking forward to getting back into the win column on Friday.
In addition to the time he spent with Abitibi at the end of last season, Olson also has experience playing with a couple of his current teammates — centre Jordan Rendle (8, 4-2-6, 4) and defenceman Andrew Castagna (8, 0-2-2, 4) last season with the Ridge Meadows Flames, of the PIJHL.
“Jordan is very gifted offensively and he has a good finish, so he has helped replace some of the offence we lost with the Killer Bs line (Brenden Locke and Brennan Roy, traded to the Cobourg Cougars, of the OJHL, and Brady Clouthier, too old).
“On the back end, Andrew is a very smooth skater, good with the puck and he sees the ice really well.”
Olson has had not issues coming back to the Rock and having to relearn Gagne’s system.
“I came in with a lot more confidence than I would have had if I had gone to another team,” he said.
“I know Paul’s system very well, so it has been a very easy transition. I came in, didn’t even have a practice and just went into a game.”
For the most part, Olson has been paired with Rock rookie blue-liner Jared Hester.
“He is a good young player who sees the ice really well,” he said.
“He is easy to play with back there.”
While Olson was not with the Rock for the two exhibition games they played against Rayside-Balfour, he did face the team last season when they were known as the Sudbury Nickel Barons.
“Last year, they were a big and fast team,” he said.
“I think we went 1-1-0-0 against them when I was in the lineup last year and I have heard they are big and fast this year, as well. We are just going to have to play our hockey game and play like we did against the Eskis.”
Forward Wayne Mathieu (8, 1-1-2, 2), who has made a smooth transition from the Great North Midget League’s Timmins Majors, is confident the Rock will be able to rebound against the Canadians on Friday.
“I think we just have to get back on the same track and focus on doing all the little things right and playing our program,” he said.
“Our forecheck game has to be strong and when we are playing defensively, we just have to play our system.”
Mathieu played in both exhibition games against the Canadians and has a pretty good idea of what to expect Friday night.
“They will be trying to snap their three-game losing streak, but we will be playing as hard as we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
“We are just going to focus on playing our game and not worry about what they are trying to do out there.”
Mathieu, your prototypical energy player, feels the Rock can be one of the top teams in the NOJHL this season.
“We have a lot of skilled guys who can put the puck away and all of our systems are working well for us, too,” he said.
Game time for Friday’s contest against the Canadians is 7:30 p.m.