By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock have owned the Iroquois Falls Eskis this season, winning the first six meetings of the 2016-17 NOJHL campaign.
They will be looking to push that streak to seven games when they host the Eskis at the McIntyre Arena Wednesday night.
It will be the first meeting of the two teams since the Rock rallied to edge the Eskis 5-4 in overtime at the Jus Jordan Arena back on Jan. 28.
Heading into Wednesday night’s meeting, the Rock and the Eskis appear to be headed in different directions.
The Rock (32-14-3-0) have a record of 7-3-0-0 in their past 10 games, despite playing five games on the road in seven night, while the Eskis (15-31-3-0) have posted a mark of 0-8-2-0 during that span, including an 8-6 loss to the visiting Rapids — only French River’s second win all season, in their last start at the Jus Jordan Arena on Saturday night.
That does not mean, however, that the Rock will be taking anything for granted when the two teams cross hockey sticks at the McIntyre Arena Wednesday night.
“You know what, for some reason it (the records of the two teams) doesn’t really matter,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“Every time we play them, it isn’t an easy game. We can’t afford to take anything for granted when we play any team that has fewer points than we do in the standings. We have objectives and one of them is to finish second.”
With five games in hand — one of which will be used up Wednesday night — the Rock still hold out hope of catching the Cochrane Crunch (36-14-4-1) and finishing in second place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings.
That would earn the Rock home-ice advantage in a likely first-round match-up against the Crunch when the playoffs get underway.
The fifth-place Eskis, on the other hand, will be taking on the Gold Miners in a best-of-three qualifier series, with Kirkland Lake having already wrapped up home-ice advantage for that series.
“We are definitely going to be up for Wednesday night’s game,” Gagne said.
“We have been playing lots of hockey as of late and I find our team is in a pretty good state of mind right now, hockey-wise. Even during our last game (Saturday night’s 4-3 win over the visiting Elliot Lake Wildcats), we played more of a mental game than a physical game because of the fatigue factor.”
Saturday night’s contest was the Rock’s sixth game in nine nights and given that they have been battling a nasty flu bug for the past couple of weeks, getting a couple of days — Sunday and Monday — off was likely just what the doctor ordered.
“The players got two good days of recuperation,” Gagne said.
“They were able to stay away from the rink, so they should be fresh mentally and physically.”
The Rock returned to practice Tuesday afternoon, with the focus being on fine tuning their game.
“We are looking forward to Wednesday night’s game,” Gagne said.
“We are not over thinking the opponent too much. We are just looking forward to continuing to play our game.
“Whenever we have thrown anything new at our players, the assignments are being done.”
With back-up goalie Jeff Veitch continuing to battle the flu bug, it is expected Timmins Majors goalie Jimmy Carleton will once again have starter Albert Rogers’ back Wednesday night.
“Jeff has been in the hospital for the last three days,” Gagne said.
“He has been in the ICU and we have another two or three players who have flu symptoms right now, as well.”
Defenceman Brendan Campbell missing the last two games while fighting the bug and it is not known if he will be ready to return to action Wednesday night or not.
“During flu season, when one player on your club gets it goes around,” Gagne said.
One player who will be out of the lineup is forward Jacob Shankar, who will be serving the third game of the four-game suspension he picked up after being assessed a kneeing infraction during a game against the Crunch in Cochrane on Feb. 14.
The Rock have used a number of affiliate players, from the Majors as well as other local squads, throughout the season and Gagne expects they may employ a few call-ups Wednesday night, as well.
“I think that’s pretty likely,” he said.
“The odds are we will.”
After leading the league in goals scored most of the season, the Rock, with 234, currently sit second in the NOJHL in that category, trailing only the Crunch (249) who have played five more games.
The Rock have nine players — Tyler Romain (48, 26-31-57, 31), Jordan Rendle (45, 29-27-56, 64), Bain Cunningham (49, 16-38-54, 43), Wayne Mathieu (47, 25-23-48, 18), Cole Gilligan (48, 22-18-40, 4), Alexandre Brisson (47, 17-23-40, 42), Stewart Parnell (47, 8-31-39, 22), Shankar (41, 19-19-38, 40) and Cory Sprague (47, 20-16-36, 52) — who have already exceeded the 35-point plateau this season.
In addition, Dean Kiriacou (15, 4-8-12, 6) has been averaging almost a point a game since joining the team in a January trade with the Brockville Braves, of the CCHL.
With 177 goals on the season, the Eskis do not have quite as much firepower as the Rock, but they still have seven players — Shadow Reuben (48, 27-38-65, 24), Dillan Bruce(44, 24-32-56, 32), defenceman Josh Dejulio (47, 10-36-46, 30), Alex Mitsionis (48, 14-29-43, 35), defenceman Phil Caron (46, 7-28-35, 12) and Blake Holowaty (47, 12-22-34, 50) — who have cracked the 35-point barrier or are one point shy of that magic mark.
In addition, Ryan Gruszka (28, 12-16-28, 34) has been averaging a point a game since being acquired by the Eskis.
Even though the Eskis have not found the win column since beating the Rapids 6-2 in French River back on Jan. 11, coach and assistant general manager Jamy Bernier feels the team has not been playing that bad.
“We have lost a couple of players to injuries and suspensions and we have been having a little bit of a rough time climbing out of this stretch,” he said.
“I think this past weekend, our group learned a lot about each other in terms of where we are headed and I think we regained our mojo a little bit.
“Our first task at hand is going to be dealing with the Rock Wednesday night. We are getting ready to play the Rock and come out of that game with two points.
“We are kind of looking to Wednesday as a new beginning after the struggles we had on the weekend. I thought we played well against Elliot Lake on Friday night, but we got into a bad situation with penalty trouble that cost us a goal that cost us the game.
“The game against French River, you have to give credit to the Rapids. They battled hard and they were resilient in that game. Again, penalties affected us.”
The Eskis might want to pay a little extra attention to being disciplined Wednesday night, as the Rock lead the entire NOJHL with a power-play efficiency of 20.4%, while Iroquois Falls sits dead last on the penalty kill with a success rate of just 75.9%
The Rock, on the other hand, are tied for fifth in the league on the penalty kill, with a rating of 83.0%, while the Eskis with a success rate just of 17.9% are eight in power-play rankings.
It hasn’t just been special teams that have been an issue for the Eskis lately, of course.
“We are not going to make excuses,” Bernier said.
“We have not been as good as we want to be lately, but at the same time we are going to take a step back, have a chalk talk and go into Wednesday’s game against the Rock with a fresh mentality. We just need to be better and be ready to battle.”
The frustrating part for the Eskis is that with a break or two here or there they might have a much better record.
“That has kind of been the story for us over this last stretch of games,” Bernier said.
“Other than a couple of games here and there, we have been on the wrong side of a lot of one-goal games. We have just got to find a way to get on the other side of those scores.
“Wednesday night against the Rock, we are going to go in there with the mentality that we have to play strong for 60 minutes the way we know we can. They are a good hockey team, but at the same time, I think we match up well against them.”
The game plan for the Eskis is going to be fairly straight forward: Get pucks on the net and create traffic in front of it.
“We are going to have to get in their goaltender’s kitchen,” Bernier said.
“They have got good goaltending, that’s for sure. Rogers has come in there and given them that cushion in net they had been looking for.”
Goaltending has been one of the strengths for the Eskis all season, although that fact may not necessarily be reflected in the stats of either Artem Bortovskiy (1,344:00, 8-9-3-0, 0, 3.97, .912) or Trevor Hawkes (1,512:00, 7-20-0-0, 0, 5.16, .885).
The Eskis will be missing the services of a pair of players Wednesday night.
Forward Cameron Boutin will be serving the third game of a four-game suspension he picked up for being assessed a checking-from-behind infraction on Feb. 10, while Wade Auger will be serving the second game of a two-game suspension he earned for being assessed a blind-side-hit penalty in a game on Feb. 17.