By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will be looking to continue their ascent up the NOJHL East Division standings when they host the Soo Eagles at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
With eight wins in their past 10 games, the Rock(11, 8-3-0-0, 16) are just one point behind the second-place Powassan Voodoos and they have a game in hand on the team they have beaten both at home and on the road during that streak.
The Rock have also had convincing wins over the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake and the Soo Thunderbirds at the McIntyre Arena during that streak.
In fact, the only two blemishes on the record of the Rock during the past 10 games have come at the hands of the Cochrane Crunch — the only NOJHL squad that has yet to suffer a regulation defeat.
The Eagles (14, 4-9-1, 9) on the other hand sit in fifth place in the NOJHL’s West Division standings — one point up on the last-place Espanola Express and one point behind the fourth-place Blind River Beavers.
On paper, Saturday night’s contest might look like a mismatch given that the Rock have outscored the Eagles 63-48 so far this season, while surrendering just 40 goals compared to the Eagles’ 60.
The Eagles have lost all six of their 2016-17 road games in regulation, while the Rock are 4-2-0-0 on home ice.
On the power play, the Rock (27.5%) have the second-best efficiency rate in the NOJHL, while the Eagles (23.4%) sit fourth. The Rock (84.4%) are seventh in the NOJHL on the penalty kill, while the Eagles (78.4%) sit in 10th spot.
The early portion of the NOJHL schedule has proven, however, that any team is capable of beating any other team on any given night.
The Eagles have at least nine capable scorers in forwards Chris Murphy (12, 8-7-15, 29), Bradley Hofelich (12, 5-9-14, 2), William Casey (14, 4-9-13, 12), Tait Aptakin (14, 5-7-12, 10), Jake Saxton (14, 4-8-12, 6), Chris Lutz (11, 3-7-10, 4), Brendan Schultz (12, 6-3-9, 4), Rhett Rampinelli (14, 5-4-9, 15) and Landon Hubbard (12, 3-5-8, 8).
Jack Deines (344:00, 2-5-0-0, 0, 4.02, .880) is back between the pipes for the Eagles this season and he has been joined by Justyn Gillis (310:00, 2-1-1-0, 0, 4.26, .879) and Sean Angle (186:00, 0-3-0-0, 0 3.86, .867).
The Rock have received solid goaltending from Caleb Barris (426:00, 6-1-0-0, 0, 3.38, .901) and Matthew Nixon (240:00, 2-2-0-0, 0, 4.00, .910) this season, but the team has brought in Demaine Wray on a tryout basis.
“We are happy with our goalies, but if we have an opportunity to improve, why not take a look at him,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“Our coaching staff saw a video of him and he looked impressive. He is a big boy and he is very sound technically.
Wray was on the ice for the Rock’s practice Thursday afternoon.
On defence, the Rock — who currently only have five blue-liners on the roster — may be without the services of Jared Hester (11, 6-5-11, 12) on Saturday night.
“He got some stitches on his head after being taken into the boards (during the NOJHL Showcase in Sudbury early this week), so he is day-to-day,” Gagne said.
“We have been rolling five Ds and the players have not been complaining. They cherish the ice time they are getting.”
The status of forward Jacob Shankar (11, 7-6-13, 10) for Saturday night’s contest also remains up in the air.
“He took a mean check during the Showcase and the guy who hit him got a five-minute major,” Gagne said.
“He is feeling a little nauseated right now so he is going to have to go through the post-concussion protocols. He is likely day-to-day, as well.”
One player who is expected to be available for the game against the Eagles is forward Alexandre Brisson.
There had been some concern he might have been facing a suspension after taking a double-minor penalty for slew footing and a game misconduct during Wednesday’s Showcase victory over the Iroquois Falls Eskis.
The Rock have been getting solid offensive contributions from all of their lines so far this season.
“Offensively, we are really happy,” Gagne said.
The Rock have five players — Tyler Romain (11, 7-8-15, 6), captain Jordan Rendle (11, 7-7-14, 28), Wayne Mathieu (9, 7-6-13, 0), Shankar and Cory Sprague (11, 7-4-11, 10) — who have already scored seven goals this season.
In addition, rookie forward Marcus Blackned (9, 6-8-14, 4) and Hester have each scored six goals and Cole Gilligan (11, 5-6-11, 0) has potted five.
One of the Rock’s top snipers from last season, forward Bain Cunningham (11, 2-12-14, 16) has struggled to find the back of the net early on, however.
But that does not mean the Barrie native, who is tied for 15th place in the NOJHL scoring race, has not contributed in other ways.
“I thought he played one of his best games of the season on Wednesday,” Gagne said.
“He played centre on our third line, to take some of the pressure off of him. We used him to kill penalties and he was out there on the power play. He was involved, he was hitting and he was backchecking.
“For a player with his skills, it is just a matter of time before the puck starts going in the net for him.”
It took teammate Wayne Mathieu four games to finally find the back of the net, but once he did, he potted six goals in two games and Gagne feels the same thing could happen for Cunningham.
“When you have the skills and he has the work ethic, just like Wayne, you are going to eventually be compensated for your effort,” he said.
“As long as he is going out there and generating the chances, there is nothing to worry about.”
The biggest issue the Rock have right now is a propensity to take “too many stupid penalties.
“If we could get that issue resolved, I have a feeling we could do really well,” Gagne said.
“Even though we are off to an 8-3-0-0 start, I think our record could be even better if it wasn’t for the stupid penalties.”
Rock players are obviously not deliberately going out and trying to take unnecessary penalties.
“There are two ways of getting them to stop taking those kinds of penalties,” Gagne said.
“One, you could put a needle into them and extract a certain amount of testosterone, or two, you could have them cut back on the stupid pills they are taking.”
All kidding aside, the Rock may want to put more focus into staying out of the penalty box given that the Eagles have been quite effective with the man advantage this season.
“If we keep bringing it up, having meetings and viewing video clips, sooner or later there is going to be a breakthrough,” Gagne said.
“We have been better lately, but there is still more room for improvement. In the game of hockey, sometimes you have to make sacrifices and swallow your pride. You might get an elbow in the back of the head, but you just can’t retaliate all the time.”