By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Only one point separates the Timmins Rock and the Rayside-Balfour Canadians in the NOJHL overall standings heading into Saturday night’s game at the McIntyre Arena.
It will be the fourth and final regular-season meeting between the Rock (42, 24-17-0-1, 49), who hold down fourth place in the East Division standings, and the Canadians (4, 24-17-1-1, 50), who sit in third place in the West Division standings.
The last time the two teams met, Jan. 2 at the Chelmsford Arena, Aaron Kerr scored three goals to lead the Rock to a 6-3 victory. Bain Cunningham also had a pair of goals in that victory.
“We are coming into Timmins and know we will be facing an offensively gifted team,” said Canadians coach Jason Young.
“The last time they came to Rayside-Balfour, we were up 3-0 and they scored six unanswered goals in the second period to beat us 6-3. Obviously, that is in the back of our minds, so hopefully we will be ready to go on Saturday.”
The first two meetings of the season between the Rock and the Canadians took place back in October, with the Canadians posting a 7-4 win at the Chelmsford Arena on Oct. 31 and the Rock thumping the visitors 8-2 at the McIntyre Arena on Oct. 2.
“We are going to have to play solid defensively,” Young said.
“We can’t have any missed assignments. We just have to make sure we play a solid road game, nothing fancy. We have nobody to impress. All we are looking for is to try and get two points.
“We are not in the same division, but it doesn’t matter. We are still fighting for home ice with Elliot Lake (Wildcats). Obviously, we are going to be playing Elliot Lake in the playoffs unless we really go for a … I guess you could say go to the washroom really bad and the guys don’t play well. Right now, as it stands, we would be playing Elliot Lake.”
The Canadians had been scheduled to play the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie Wednesday night, but that game was postponed because Rayside-Balfour would not have had enough players due to injuries and high school exams eliminating any potential call-ups.
“We have a couple of kids with concussions who will definitely not be playing Saturday night and we have one player who will be coming back into the lineup,” Young said.
“The other part is that basically the flu bug has been running around here. We had six guys missing just from illness yesterday (practice). We tried to get some APs (affiliate players) to come up today (Wednesday) for the Soo but it is exam week here for all the high school kids.
“I think the rule is you have to have 12 skaters dressed and two goalies and we couldn’t even do that.
“Hopefully, guys will be feeling a little bit better on Saturday when we leave and we will go from there.”
When asked which two Canadians will be out of the lineup with concussions Saturday night, Young declined to elaborate.
“I don’t want to give (Rock coach and general manager) Paul (Gagne) a heads-up,” he said.
“He can wait until game time to try and figure it out.”
The Canadians will be without one of their better players, defenceman Ryan Mooney (21, 6-17-23, 21), who signed earlier this season with the Moncton Wildcats, of the QMJHL.
Mooney, a Sudbury native, has put up some impressive stats (18, 1-3-4, 2) since joining the Wildcats — his plus-5 plus/minus rating being the most impressive.
“To replace a kid like Ryan Mooney, who is gifted offensively, plays defence and is a right-handed shot, which are few and far between on our team, is not easy,” Young said.
“He averaged more than a point a game and he was playing really well for us, quarterbacking our power play. That’s hard to replace, but we have had guys step up here and there.
“Ryan worked hard for the two-and-a-half years that I had him. He progressed every year and he got his opportunity and played well at the right time.
“We are happy for Ryan. That is what we try to do, move kids on and obviously Ryan was still young enough that Moncton decided they wanted to have him on their team and he has played well up there.”
Unlike previous years, the strength of this year’s Canadians (previously the Sudbury Nickel Barons) appears to be offence.
The Canadians 197 goals scored rank them first in the West Division and third overall in the NOJHL.
They have seven players — Ryan Erickson (38, 23-49-72, 35), Bradley Chenier (41, 23-37-60, 64), Otis Goldman (28, 25-27-52, 20), defenceman Kyle Fransen (35, 11-33-44, 46), Matthew Neault (43, 16-20-36, 30), Danny Lepage (40, 16-13-29, 26) and Makenzie MacMillan (31, 10-3-13, 12) — currently on their roster who have scored 10 or more goals this season.
“At the start of the year, when we were picking our team, we tried to have some balanced scoring,” Young said.
“We have one really good line, like any other team, with guys above the 20- to 25-goal mark and then we tried to get guys on the second and third lines who might be able to score 20 goals. We have a couple of kids who are probably going to reach that milestone and that is pretty good … to have five or six of them on your team.
“That is one thing we didn’t have in the past, was a lot of goal scoring. It is something we tried to go find. It is not always easy, but we were kind of lucky this year that it worked out for us.”
The Canadians have not been quite as sharp on the defensive side of the puck, as the 155 goals they have given up this season ranks them fourth in the West Division and tied for eighth overall — with the Rock, who have played one fewer game.
MacKenzie Savard (1,231:00, 12-8-0-1, 0, 3.02, .916) and Jessie Morin (923:00, 9-6-0-0, 0, 3.83, .895) have manned the net since Kevin Labelle (431:00, 3-4-0-0, 0, 3.90, .888) was traded to the Espanola Express back in November.
The Canadians have many changes to their lineup since their last visit to Timmins on Oct. 2.
“We have made quite a few changes,” Young said.
“Our D corps is a lot stronger. We have five 20 year olds back there. I am not sure all of them will be playing on Saturday.
“We went and picked up a No. 1 centreman in Otis Goldman and that has made a tremendous difference for our captain, Ryan Erickson. It gave him somebody to play with that he was familiar with. They played together in Hamilton.
“We had a couple of guys decide hockey wasn’t for them anymore. We had two or three guys decide they wanted to concentrate on school.
“So, we have a bit of a different team.”
Gagne has a good idea of what to expect from the Canadians Saturday night.
“They are big, they are physical and they have good goaltending,” he said.
“They have a really good first line, with the young Chenier, so we know they can explode offensively. We have to be careful. They also have a defenceman (Fransen) amongst their top scorers.
“We can’t afford to play loose hockey and give them two-on-ones and turnovers.
“The last time we played them, we fell behind the 8-ball, then we started putting pressure on them. Our forecheck was relentless and the next thing you know, we started scoring goals.
“Our objective Saturday night is going to be to play tight defence. If we do that, our offence will take care of itself. We have the manpower. We have the players to be able to execute offensively. It is just a matter of committing to playing well defensively and shutting them down.”
The Rock forecheck will get a boost from the return of forward Wayne Mathieu (33, 8—14, 29) from an upper-body injury Saturday night.
“Wayne is an assignment guy,” Gagne said.
“He does everything we ask of him and then some. Our players know that and when they see him play, he is structured and he puts the effort in out there. He is a little agitator and he makes things happen.
“He helps out on our penalty kill, plays on the third line. He just does it all. The players see that and it gives them motivation. They know they have to work really hard to be in the lineup.”
Mathieu has not played since the Rock’s 5-2 win over the Wildcats in Elliot Lake on Jan. 3.
The Rock, with 200 goals on the season, trail only the Cochrane Crunch when it comes to offence.
Their offence is led by Zachary Kercz (41, 20-46-66, 70), Tristan Salesse (31, 25-32-57, 16), Jordan Rendle (39, 26-27-53, 46), Bain Cunningham (41, 21-23-44, 34), Ryan Theriault (36, 16-20-36, 30), Aaron Kerr (13, 11-12-23, 2) and Landen Matechuk (3, 2-4-6, 0).
Blue-liners Ryan Kerr (36, 5-26-31, 30), Andrew Castagna (41, 9-14-23, 29) and Joe Olson (34, 2-21-23, 42) are also having fine offensive campaigns.
Goalies Logan Ferrington (1,411:00, 15-8-0-1, 1, 3.53, .911) and Matthew Nixon (920:00, 8-7-0-0, 0, 3.78, .898) are both finally healthy and the team has Devon Debastos (80:00, 0-1-0-0, 3.02, .917) waiting in the wings.
Game time for Saturday night’s contest is set for 7:30 p.m.