By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock’s chances of finishing second in the NOJHL’s East Division standings might rest somewhere between slim and none, but team officials are not about to give up the fight until they are mathematically eliminated.
“It is still realistic to think we have a chance of catching them,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne of his team’s pursuit of the Cochrane Crunch.
“Of course it is. If we can get ourselves into a 10-game winning streak, that would be 20 points. That is what they have done and I am sure we can do the same thing, but the bottom line is we can’t be an average hockey club.
“We have got to get back on track and what better time than to shut them down on our home ice and ruin their streak?”
Currently riding a 10-game winning streak following Sunday’s 10-2 win over the French River Rapids in Smooth Rock Falls, the Crunch (34-11-4-1) have pushed their advantage over the Rock (27-12-3-0) to 16 points.
True, after a weekend off, the Rock have eight games in hand heading into Tuesday night’s head-to-head clash at the McIntyre Arena, but as assistant coach James Daschuk pointed out following Thursday night’s disappointing 4-1 home-ice loss to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners: “Eventually, those games in hand won’t be games in hand anymore.”
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday night’s contest, the Rock will still have those eight games in hand, but a loss to the Crunch would mean even if Timmins were to win all eight of those contests — no guarantee given their lack of compete against the Gold Miners — they would still come up two points short.
Should the two teams end up tied at the end of the NOJHL’s 56-game regular-season schedule, the Crunch — who currently lead the season series 5-2-0-0 — would have the first tie breaker (head-to-head match-up) even if the Rock win Tuesday night and then in Cochrane on Valentine’s Day.
“They have a couple of players who have been scoring against us with great regularity,” Gagne said.
“Konnar Dechaine (48, 31-25-56, 26), for example, always seems to get a goal or two against us every time we play them. For some reason, he has got our number, so we are going to have to keep an eye on him.”
In the seven games against the Rock this season, Dechaine has scored eight goals and added three assists.
And while the Crunch don’t play the run-and-gun style that made them so successful the past two seasons, they have plenty of firepower.
Up front, in addition to Dechaine, Braedan Cross (48, 36-40-76, 28), Brandon McReynolds (48, 22-37-59, 30), Nate Viberg (44, 22-33-55, 22), Kyle Herbster (50, 14-16-30, 22), Bailey Shaver (46, 16-13-29, 62), Haiden Karnick (49, 12-15-27, 2), Nicolas Flanders (49, 11-16-27, 62) have all topped the 25-point mark this season, as has captain Connor Lovie (50, 6-21-27, 48) on the blue-line.
And let’s not forget about Justin Hess(17, 7-9-16, 20), who is averaging almost a point a game, and Shane Woolsey (18, 5-3-8, 6), who is rounding back into form after missing much of the season with a lower-body injury he suffered prior to being acquired from the Elliot Lake Wildcats back in November.
“It also comes down to our game,” Gagne said.
“We have to capitalize on our chances.”
Despite having played at least two fewer games than any other team in the NOJHL to this point in the season, the Rock — with 208 — ranked second in the NOJHL in goals scored heading into Tuesday night’s contest to the Crunch, who have found the back of the net 229 times.
The Rock boast nine forwards — Tyler Romain (41, 25-29-54, 29), Jordan Rendle (40, 25-25-50, 56), Bain Cunningham (42, 14-33-47, 37), Wayne Mathieu (40, 20-22-42, 16), Stewart Parnell (40, 7-29-36, 18), Cory Sprague (40, 19-15-34, 48), Cole Gilligan (41, 19-15-34, 2), Jacob Shankar (36, 16-18-34, 27) and Alexandre Brisson (40, 16-18-34, 34) — who have topped the 30-point barrier this season.
In addition, forward Dean Kiriacou (8, 3-3-6, 2) acquired prior to the Jan. 10 trade deadline has been averaging almost a point a game.
With that much offence on display at both ends of the ice, the key to success Tuesday night could come down to goaltending.
“They shoot from everywhere and we have got to control our rebounds and take our men down low,” Gagne said.
“We have improved in that area.”
The Rock have been without No. 1 goalie Albert Rogers (853:00, 8-4-2-0, 0, 2.81, .921, with Rock; 1,398:00, 9-11-3-1, 0, 3.65, .912, overall) for the past three games as he battled an upper-body injury, but he returned to practice Friday afternoon.
With Rogers on the shelf, Jeff Veitch (385:00, 3-2-1-0, 0, 4.05, .887, with Rock; 855:00, 6-4-1-1, 3.58, .888, overall) has made three-straight starts.
“Jeff has been playing pretty good hockey while Albert was out,” Gagne said.
“He has been working hard.”
In addition to increasing their lead over the Rock to 16 points, the Crunch have pulled to within three points of the NOJHL-leading Powassan Voodoos.
Given that Powassan has five games in hand, however, Cochrane coach and general manager Ryan Leonard doesn’t have any illusions his team will be able to grab top spot.
“We all know what the games in hand mean right now and we are not going to catch Powassan,” he said.
“Our goal right now is to continue to get ready for the playoffs and try to keep the guys focused and playing together as a team. We want to make sure we finish in second spot so we have home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.”
Leonard feels the pressure is all on the Rock heading into Tuesday night’s contest.
“The way I look at it, the Timmins Rock have to beat us in at least one of the next two games,” he said.
“If we beat them one more time, either Tuesday night or on Feb. 14, I am pretty confident that will lock up second place. They would pretty much have to win out the rest of their regular season.”
Having reeled off 10-straight wins, Leonard feels his team is firing on all cylinders at the moment.
“We have some momentum going and we are happy with where we are at,” he said.
“When our streak started, we were finally healthy and we were able to work all of our new acquisitions into the lineup.
“Everything started to click the way we had expected it to and we got on a roll.”
The Crunch have been able to win high-scoring contests, as well as close one-goal games.
“Everybody thinks we are a two-line team, but we roll four lines consistently and almost every guy on our fourth line right now has 15 or 20 points,” Leonard said.
“This year, we are a complete 200-foot team. We have guys who can backcheck and we have the trap working for us.”
One of the hottest members of the Crunch is Shaver, who was named the NOJHL’s first star of the week.
“He has been on fire for us the last couple of weeks,” Leonard said.
“He is a guy who had been playing with our third and fourth groups, but he got the chance to move up and play centre on our second line and he has taken full control. He has fit in quite well playing with Viberg and Dechaine.”
The arrival of Taylor Unruh (420:00, 6-1-0-0, 1, 2.57, .910, with Crunch; 923:00, 7-9-0-0, 1, 3.97, .880, overall) in a Jan. 5 trade with the Express has helped solidify the Crunch goaltending picture.
He was teamed well with Leighton Williams (1,630:00, 19-7-1-0, 2.69, .913) since arriving from Espanola.
Prior to Tuesday night, the Crunch have six games remaining in their 2016-17 regular-season campaign — four at home and two on the road.
In addition to playing the Rock twice, they will also face off against the Gold Miners on home ice and on the road and host the NOJHL-leading Powassan Voodoos at the Tim Horton Event Centre in their regular-season finale on March 3.
Even if the Crunch were to lose all five of those contests, their schedule will also see them play the very beatable French River Rapids on home ice Feb. 19.
The Rock, meanwhile, have 14 games left to play before the end of the regular season, including 10 in 18 days starting Tuesday night.
Unlike the Crunch, the bulk of the Rock’s remaining schedule will be made up of road games.
After hosting the Crunch Tuesday night at the McIntyre Arena, the Rock will head out for a three-game weekend road trip that will see them make stops in Espanola to play the Express Friday night, in Rayside-Balfour to play the Canadians Saturday night and in Elliot Lake to play the Wildcats Sunday night.
They will then travel to Cochrane to play the Crunch on Feb. 14 and Kirkland Lake to play the Gold Miners on Feb. 16, before finally returning home to host the Wildcats on Feb. 18 and the Iroquois Falls Eskis on Feb. 22.
Then, it’s back on the road for a game against the Voodoos in Powassan on Feb. 24 and the Rapids in French River on Feb. 25.
When the calendar flips over, the Rock will return to Kirkland Lake to take on the Gold Miners on March 2, return home to face the Eskis on March 3 and the Voodoos on March 5 — with NHL Hall of Famer Paul Coffey in town to help boost morale — before closing out the 2016-17 campaign with a visit to the Jus Jordan Arena in Iroquois Falls on March 8.