By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Rock and the Iroquois Falls Eskis have not crossed paths since Jan. 10, but the 6-3 loss Timmins suffered that night at the McIntyre Arena remains firmly etched in the minds of players, coaches and fans.
Never mind that the Rock (46, 27-18-0-1, 55) won six of their first seven games against Eskis (46, 13-33-0-0, 26), or that they have a 29-point lead over Iroquois Falls in the NOJHL’s East Division standings, that most recent loss still stings.
That’s one of the reasons the Rock are determined to sweep the home-and-home series with the Eskis that will start Saturday night and the McIntyre Arena and conclude Monday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
“The Eskis have been playing some great hockey and one of the reasons is goaltending,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“So, we are going to have to create a little magic with our offence. This is playoff hockey and we are going to need to make some kind of statement here.
“We don’t want to make it easy for them. That’s what we did the last time we played against them.”
The Eskis are coming off a 5-2 win over the Soo Eagles and have a record of 3-6-0-0 since their win over the Rock at the McIntye Arena on Jan. 10.
The strong play of goalie Joe Sheppard (1,029, 4-14-0-0, 4.90, .896) is one of the reasons why the Eskis are a team that can’t be taken lightly.
At 6-4, 205 pounds, the big Texan fills up a lot of net and he moves quickly for somebody his size, as well.
The trade with the Dryden Ice Dogs, of the SIJHL, that brought forwards
Blake Holowaty (17, 4-11-15, 27) and David Stickney (20, 4-4-8, 6), as well as defenceman Kyle Sutherland (11, 0-0-0, 50) to Iroquois Falls has also had a big impact on the team.
Offensively, the trio of David Osborne (45, 30-26-56, 2), Jacob Erwin (46, 23-27-50, 22) and Tanner Bowditch (45, 11-22-33, 20) have been among the most consistent Eskis scorers all season.
Unless something drastic changes over the next six regular-season games, the Rock will finish fourth and host the fifth-place Eskis in a best-of-three series to open the NOJHL playoffs.
“They have a lot few victories than we do, they have a lot fewer points than we do, but we can’t have that train of thought whatsoever,” Gagne said.
“We just have to go out there and complete our assignments and make sure our compete level is where it needs to be.
“That’s why it is important that we not even give them a sniff of winning this game (Saturday night), or Monday’s.
“We have to play as a team and we have to tighten up in our defensive zone. Playing good defence will create more opportunities for us offensively.”
Based upon the results of the Rock’s trek to Cochrane Tuesday night, the team still has some work to be done in that area in practice this week.
“There was probably more intensity in the video room than anything else,” Gagne said.
“We evaluated our last game and we looked at what needs to be done in the defensive zone, the mistakes we made and what can be done to fix them. That’s what we did for more than an hour yesterday (Wednesday).
“Our players are aware of our defensive breakdowns and what needs to be looked at.”
Gagne feels the Rock need to get back to the things they were doing well when they won six-straight games against the Eskis following their loss in the first game of the series.
“We need to be relentless with our forecheck and cause them to make mistakes and turn over the puck,” he said.
“We also need to drive to the net and force them and put pressure on them. When ever we do that, we are pretty successful.”
The Rock have a potent offence, keyed by
Zachary Kercz (45, 21-52-73, 76), Tristan Salesse (35, 28-36-64, 16), Jordan Rendle (43, 30-29-59, 51), Bain Cunningham (45, 23-27-50, 36), Ryan Theriault (40, 18-20-38, 34), Aaron Kerr (17, 13-18-31, 2) and Landen Matechuk (7, 4-9-13, 4).
Blue-liners Ryan Kerr (40, 5-28-33, 36), Andrew Castagna (45, 10-15-25, 10), Joe Olson (38, 2-23-25, 42) and Jared Hester (46, 7-11-18, 20) have also made contributions at the offensive end of the rink, as well.
The status of Castagna, who earned Gongshow Gear Defenceman of the Month honours for January, for Saturday night’s game remains up in the air after the smooth-skating blue-liner left Tuesday’s game early with a lower-body injury.
“He is supposed to go and see the orthopaedic surgeon this week and we will see what the scenario is,” Gagne said.
“He went down in the first period Tuesday and he tried it for maybe three shifts after that, but he was not 100% so it was better to be cautious.”
Starting goalie Logan Ferrington (1,653:00, 18-9-0-1, 1, 3.74, .905) has been solid again this season, giving his team a shot to win on most nights, while back-ups Matthew Nixon (920:00, 8-7-0-0, 0, 3.78, .898) and Devon Debastos (80:00, 0-1-0-0, 0, 3.02, .917) have both been stead, as well.