By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will be looking to push their current winning streak to four games when they welcome the Iroquois Falls Eskis to the friendly confines of the McIntyre Arena Wednesday night.
It will be the third meeting of the season for the two NOJHL East Division rivals with the Rock (13, 10-3-0-0, 20) having taken the first two games of the season series — 6-2 in Iroquois Falls on Oct. 5 and 7-5 during the Showcase tournament in Sudbury on Oct. 12.
Technically, that second contest was a home game for the Rock even though it was played at the Gerry McCrory Countryside Sports Complex.
For the Eskis, the earlier 6-2 loss at the Jus Jordan Arena represented a low point in their season and they have rebounded to play some pretty impressive hockey since that contest.
In the seven games that have followed, the Eskis (16, 6-10-0-0, 12) have posted a record of 5-2-0-0 to pull within five points of the fourth-place Gold Miners and they have one game in hand on Kirkland Lake.
“The game here against the Rock was a reality check for our guys, not only in terms of a lack of performance but also of how the guys were maintaining themselves as individuals in the dressing room,” said Eskis coach and assistant general manager Jamy Bernier.
“Ever since then, we have been a really well-glued unit. We have 24 guys in the locker room right now who really believe what we have here.
“The NOJHL is so close right now in terms of standings. Anybody can beat anybody else on any given night and we want to be in the mix of that. We explained to our guys that they give themselves a fighting chance to win every night by competing as a unit rather than as individuals.
“Ever since that reality check against the Rock, we have had guys turn it up and really prove themselves as effective players. It has provided dividends at the end of the day, because we keep winning and if we can keep rolling that way, it is going to be something for our fans to keep watching.”
The five wins the Eskis have accumulated during their current seven-game streak have come against some top-notch opponents, including the NOJHL West Division-leading Soo Thunderbirds (6-2) and the Powassan Voodoos (4-3), who are tied for top spot in the East Division standings.
“I think that confirms what we have been telling the boys since Day 1, that working together is key,” Bernier said.
“We do have some guys who are very talented hockey players in this dressing room, but we have made everybody realize that everybody has got a roll on this team and everybody has an important job to do on any given night. Our role players are paying close attention to what their jobs are and they are doing those jobs well.
“When you are beating teams like the Thunderbirds and the (Soo) Eagles, who have been successful and picking up a win against Blind River on Saturday when they were coming off a huge win against the (Cochrane) Crunch, it definitely boosts morale, for sure.”
The Eskis feature a number of offensive stars, including Shadow Reuben (16, 11-11-22, 0), Dillan Bruce (16, 10-12-22, 12), captain David Osborne (12, 9-10-19, 17), Blake Holowaty (16, 6-11-17, 10) and defenceman Phil Caron (16, 2-13-15, 4), but the play of some of the team’s unsung heroes has been just as important during this current streak.
“You have got guys like Alex Mitsionis (16, 2-9-11, 13) and Jay Sidhu (12, 5-1-6, 8), who are 20 year olds and who could play more of an offensive role, who are out there shutting down the other teams’ No. 1 line every night,” Bernier said.
“When you play three games where you are playing the two Soo teams and the Voodoos and you hold those teams first and second lines to next to no points it is because those guys have been huge for us.”
The Eskis have also received solid goaltending from the duo of Artem Bortovskiy (492:00, 4-3-0-0, 0, 3.53, .914) and Trevor Hawkes (467:00, 2-7-0-0, 0, 5.27, .869) during their current streak.
“Artem Bortovskiy has been somewhat of a surprise for us because he is just a kid who showed up at training camp,” Bernier said.
“He has proven to be a great complement to Trevor Hawkes in our net. He has been picking up some big wins for us in this last stretch. Three of his last four starts have been victories and there have been some big ones in there. He faced the Thunderbirds, who fired 53 shots at him, and he only allowed two goals, so he was an integral of that victory. The numbers speak for themselves. He has been great for us.”
Given the Eskis’ struggles against the Rock this season, he knows it will be important for his team to get off to a good start Wednesday night.
“The first two times we have played against them, we have allowed them to score the first goal,” he said.
“We had a much better performance against them during the Showcase, but during the first game on our home ice at the Jus Jordan Arena, it was a little bit disappointing to see how flat we were coming out of the gate.”
Slowing down the Rock attack at the McIntyre Arena will not be easy, of course.
Heading into Wednesday’s contest, the Rock (75) rank second to the Thunderbirds (78) in goals scored, although the Soo has played five more games than Timmins to this point in the season.
The Rock have eight players — captain Jordan Rendle (13, 10-10-20, 30), Wayne Mathieu (11, 9-7-16, 0), Tyler Romain (13, 8-8-16, 6), Marcus Blackned (11, 6-10-16, 4), Bain Cunningham (13, 4-12-16, 16), defenceman Jared Hester (13, 6-8-14, 14), Jacob Shankar (12, 7-6-13, 10) and Cole Gilligan (13, 5-8-13, 0) — who are averaging at least a point per game and two others, Cory Sprague (13, 7-5-12, 16) and Stewart Parnell (11, 2-8-10, 0), who are one point off that pace. In addition, Alexandre Brisson (12, 5-4-9, 8) has five goals on the season.
“It’s nice to see we are getting offensive contributions from so many players,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“And if you look at our goals against, we have a pretty good commitment in our defensive zone, as well. That’s what I like. I have always said if we take care of our defensive assignments we will be compensated with offensive opportunities.
“With the offence, our forechecking has been great and we have been causing our opponents to make a lot of mistakes. We have been capitalizing and doing it with all four lines.”
Gagne knows his team will have to be at the top of their game if they hope to secure a third-straight victory over the Eskis Wednesday night.
“There is no secret to what we have done in the first two games against them,” he said.
“We have worked hard and we have persevered. We have a good thing going. Our forecheck has been relentless.
“We have been getting contributions from all of our lines and our defence has been stellar.”
Like the Eskis, the Rock have been getting solid contributions from everyone on their roster.
“Our players are on a roll right now,” Gagne said.
“They are confident in their abilities and they are playing within our program.”
The coach knows the Eskis are a dangerous team, regardless of whether they are on a hot streak like they are now, or not.
“Even before this streak, when they were losing they were only losing by a goal or two and they were in every game,” Gagne said.
“They are relentless and they work hard. If we play against them and we are not ready, well the odds are they are going to be 6-2-0-0 in eight games. We have to be on top of our game.”
For the Rock, being on top of their game goes beyond working hard.
“Being smart goes a long ways, as well,” Gagne said.
“A lot of the time, you not only have to outwork your opponent, you also have to outsmart them. You do that by being patient and being confident.”
The Rock hope to have 19-year-old defenceman James Watier (32, 2-4-6, 42), who spent the 2015-16 season with the Cleveland Barons, of the T1EHL, in the lineup for Wednesday night’s contest.
The 5-10, 165 pounds, smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman has been in town for a week, but can’t play until his paperwork is finalized.