By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will welcome the Cochrane Crunch to the McIntyre Arena for their first visit of the 2016-17 NOJHL season Wednesday night.
It will be the first meeting of the two teams since the Crunch eliminated the Rock from the 2016 playoffs on March 24.
A 5-2 victory that night gave the visiting Crunch a sweep of their best-of-seven East Division semifinal series.
For Cochrane, it was just another game in a playoff journey that would eventually see them defeated in the East Division final by the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, but for the Rock, there is still a bitter taste in the mouths of their veterans.
Captain Jordan Rendle is one of seven Rock (5, 4-1-0-0, 8) returnees who would like to exact a little payback on the visitors Wednesday night and help his team close the gap on the East Division-leading Crunch (7, 5-0-1-1, 12).
“It is definitely going to be in the back of our minds and we are going to come out flying with a little bit extra inspiration to try and win the game,” he said.
“We are going to approach this contest with the same mindset we have employed for the last games. We have been working hard in practice and we are going to be ready to go Wednesday.
“Getting two points on Wednesday is going to be huge. We have a confident group in our room right now and we are on a good little roll.”
After dropping their home opener 4-3 to the Gold Miners, the Rock have reeled off four-straight victories to pull within four points of the Crunch, who have yet to suffer a regulation loss this season. Timmins also has a pair of games in hand on their rivals.
Part of the reason for the Rock’s fast start to the 2016-17 campaign has been the play of the team’s second line — Wayne Mathieu (5, 6-4-10, 0), Tyler Romain (5, 3-4-7, 4) and Jacob Shankar (5, 3-2-5, 4).
That has helped take some of the pressure off the Rock’s No. 1 line of Rendle (5, 3-3-6, 14), Cory Sprague (5, 4-2-6, 6) and Bain Cunningham (5, 0-4-4, 10).
“Our second line has been unbelievable the last few games,” Rendle said.
“Even our third and fourth lines have been rolling. Me, Bain and Cory need to get going a little bit, but that will come with time. It’s nice to have three other lines you can rely on to take some of the pressure off.”
Rendle knows the Rock will have to be at the top of their game if they are going to hand the Crunch their first regulation loss of the season Wednesday night.
“They always have a pretty strong team,” he said.
“They are gritty and they like to get a little chippy like we do, so it’s a good rivalry.”
When it comes to offence, the Crunch, who are scoring at a clip of 5.29 goals per game, second only to the 6.40 of the Rock, have plenty of firepower.
That has Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard smiling.
“We are excited about our team,” he said.
“We still have a lot of work to do. Obviously, it is still early. We let a few games slip away from us. In Kirkland Lake, on Saturday, after being down 3-0 after the first period and then play the way we did in the second and third period, was like night and day.
“We just have to find a way to be a little more consistent. If we can be consistent, we are going to beat most teams on any given night with our speed and our skill level.”
Newcomers Braedan Cross (7, 6-8-14, 6), Brandon McReynolds (7, 5-5-10, 2), Rory Milne (7, 5-5-10, 0), Konnar Dechaine (7, 7-2-9, 8), Darian Harris (7, 2-3-5, 6), Kyle Herbster (7, 3-1-4, 4) and Nicolas Flanders (7, 2-2-4, 8) have all proven they have the ability to put the puck in the net.
“I think this is the most offence we have had yet in my 11 years of coaching,” Leonard said.
“Some of the guys we are counting on to provide offence still haven’t gotten on track yet. Last year, we had two or three guys we could rely on to score, but his year we are going to have six or seven guys.
“Right now, all three of our top lines have been consistently scoring goals. That’s not to say our fourth line can’t score goals. They can, as well.
“We lost one of our top guys we brought in a couple of weeks ago, Austin Stauffer (3, 0-1-1, 7), who picked up a four-game suspension for a butt-ending match penalty he picked up on Sept. 19.
“We are going to be four lines deep and this is probably going to be the first time in the history of our team will have four lines that are all capable of being a first or second line.”
According to Leonard, the Crunch are currently trying to focus on ensuring all of their defencemen are on the same page.
“Right now, we have five returning defencemen (Connor Lovie, Zack Anderson, Lucas Robinson, Joseph Thielen and Taylor Armbruster) and they are going to be the key to us winning hockey games,” he said.
The Crunch have two new puck stoppers this season, with Leighton Williams (315:00, 4-0-1-0, 0, 2.86, .910) and Eric Vanblarcom (126:00, 1-0-0-1, 0, 3.81, .857) taking over in the crease.
“Our goals against average would be really, really low right now, but we had two games out of our seven where we did not get the goaltending and we had to pull our goalie after the first 10 or 12 shots of the game,” Leonard said.
“You take those two games away and we have probably allowed the fewest goals against in the league. We are confident we have two good goalies who can play.”
Having allowed 3.29 goals per game, the Crunch are tied with the Powassan Voodoos for the fourth-best defensive record in the NOJHL.
The Rock, meanwhile, have the sixth-best defensive record at 3.40 goals against per game.
While Wednesday’s game will have special meaning for seven members of the Rock, Leonard figures it will be just another game for the Crunch, who only have five players back who took part in that March 24 contest.
“From our side, I don’t think anybody is even going to pay attention to that fact,” he said.
“This league changes so much from year to year, so from year to year there is no such thing as a rivalry. If there is a rivalry, it will be a fresh new rivalry and we will see where it takes us.
“Having said that, it should be an exciting game. Timmins is one team we haven’t played yet.”
Heading into Wednesday night’s contest, Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne is more focused on his team and how well it implements his program than the team they will be facing at the McIntyre Arena.
“There are some tendencies with regard to what they do, certain face-off plays, stuff like that, that we will analyze, but our focus will be pretty much on our program,” he said.
“We are on a nice little run, so I am hoping we can continue it. We are having a lot of fun.
“We are going to continue to employ an aggressive forecheck and try to create turnovers. We will be focused on driving to the net, shooting the puck and making sure we have a presence in front of the net.”
While the Rock have yet to play against the Crunch, Gagne has had an opportunity to watch a number of their games on FastHockey.
“They like to attack,” he said.
“The like to get the puck out of their zone. They like to flip the puck in the neutral zone. So, I think we will be looking at counter against counter, basically.”
With two high-octane offences facing off against each other, the outcome of Wednesday night’s game could come down to which team’s goalie stops more pucks.
“Goaltending is so important,” Gagne said.
“It is a game of mistakes and when you have somebody back there who can back you up with a big save, it makes a big difference.”
Gagne was not about to tip his hand as to which of the Rock’s two goalies — Matthew Nixon (207:00, 2-1-0-0, 0, 3.48, .918) or Caleb Barris (100:00, 2-0-0-0, 0, 3.00, .911) — will get the start against the Crunch Wednesday night.
The Rock, of course, still have a third goalie — Makaio Goods — in camp, as well.
The Crunch will be without Armbruster (injury) and Stauffer (suspension) Wednesday night, while the status of Rock forward Marcus Blackned (upper-body injury) will be a game-time decision. Forward/defenceman Kyle Levis, who missed the two weekend road victories because of illness, is expected to be back in the lineup.
Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.