By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Paul Gagne likely had his computer tuned into FastHockey.com’s broadcast of Thursday night’s NOJHL game between the Espanola Express and the Cochrane Crunch.
Doing so would have provided the Timmins Rock coach and general manager with a chance to scout his squad’s next two opponents in one game.
The Express — with a record of 1-9-0-0 and last in the six-team West Division prior to Thursday night’s game in Cochrane — are on a three-game road trip through the East Division that continues with a stop at the McIntyre Arena Friday night.
And the Crunch — with a record of 10-2-0-0 and first in the East Division prior to Thursday night’s contest — will invade the McIntyre Arena for a 2 p.m. start on Sunday.
The Rock are not about to take the Express too lightly despite their seemingly futile record — especially given that many of those loses were by close scores against some quality opponents.
“Their team is well coached,” Gagne said, referring to former NHL player Tom McCarthy, who has also coached the Espanola Rivermen and the North Bay Trappers in the NOJHL and the Rivermen during their single season in the Canadian International Hockey League.
“He has a lot of new players and you know they are going to compete every night.”
The Rock skated to a 6-2 victory over the Express at the Espanola Regional Recreation Complex, during their only previous encounter this season, with Tristan Salesse and Mike Norris each netting a pair of goals.
The third member of the line, Zachary Kercz, chipped in with three assists, while Matthew Nixon turned aside 45 Express shots to register the victory.
During that contest, the Express fell behind 4-0 but battled back to make it a 4-2 hockey game before giving up a pair of late goals to the visitors.
“They (the Express) finished their checks whenever they had the chance,” Gagne said.
“They made things miserable for us. We have to be aware of that. As the season progresses, every team improves.”
The Express continue to struggle when it comes to scoring goals, as they sit dead last in the 12-team league with 16 goals in 10 games.
Prior to Thursday night’s game, the Express had only four players — Jason Bednarski (10, 3-3-6, 17), Aaron Roschinsky (8, 2-3-5, 17), Ian Thompson (10, 2-3-5, 2) and MacKenzie Aiken (10, 2-1-3, 2) — who had scored more than one goal on the season.
Defensively, the Express have been a little better as they rank ninth in the NOJHL in terms of the most goals given up on the season, at 57, ahead of the French River Rapids (62), the Iroquois Falls Eskis (68) and the Blind River Beavers (73).
J.P. Sabourin (290:00, 1-6-0-0, 0, 4.76, .878) has seen the bulk of the work in goal for the Express and enjoyed the most success.
Aaron Callan (184:00, 0-2-0-0, 0 6.19, .859) and Mitchell Jones (126:00, 0-1-0-0, 0, 7.15, .850) have also seen time in the Espanola net this season.
The Express played a physical game against the Rock in Espanola on Sept. 20 and Gagne says his squad will be prepared for a similar tactic Friday night.
“We are going to use our speed against them,” he said.
“If they want to try and hit us we are just going to roll and continue on with our skating and our second effort.”
The other key for the Rock will be avoiding the penalty box Friday night.
“Obviously, we are going to have to play disciplined,” Gagne said.
“And discipline is not always in relation to not taking penalties. It also refers to being disciplined in terms of playing our program, controlling our emotions.
“The last time we played them, they tried to provoke us a little bit. It was our third game in three nights. Sometimes, you tend to get a little antsy and a little bit grouchy.
“We will be nice and fresh and ready to go tomorrow (Friday).”
Indeed, the Rock have not seen action since they skated to a 4-2 win over the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners on home ice back on Oct. 7.
Gagne does not anticipate the Rock will be flat after such a lengthy layoff.
“After you take some time off, what you have to do is get back to playing basic hockey,” he said.
“You have to play smart hockey, make fewer mistakes, get more shots on net, spend more time in the offensive zone.
“It is just a matter of refocusing.”
The secret for the Rock to extend their current three-game win streak against the Express Friday night and then the Crunch Sunday afternoon is simple.
“We just have to play Timmins Rock hockey,” Gagne said.
“We just have to continue playing the way we have been playing of late.”
While the Express have struggled offensively, the Rock have had no problems putting the puck into the net so far this season.
Salesse (10, 9-9-18, 2), Kercz (11, 8-10-18, 16 ), Devin Panzeca (11, 9-4-13, 2), Norris (11, 7-5-12, 12), Jordan Rendle (11, 5-6-11, 4), Ryan Theriault (5, 5-3-8, 2), Tyler Romain (11, 3-4-7, 2) and Bain Cunningham (10, 2-3-5, 6) all have at least two goals so far this season.
Cunningham is expected to return to the lineup this weekend, although it is not known if he will be returning to his regular spot on a line with Rendle and Panzeca or somewhere else in the lineup.
The Rock have also been solid in their own end, with both Logan Ferrington (470:00, 4-3-1-0, 0, 2.68, .932) and Nixon (200:00, 2-1-0-0, 0, 2.70, .938) ranking among the top goalies in the NOJHL.
Gagne is not too concerned about the Rock looking past the Express to Sunday’s match-up with the East Division-leading Crunch.
“We know we have two games this weekend and that’s the way we are going to play it,” he said.
“We are not worrying about who the teams are. We could be playing Powassan, or the Crunch or Kirkland Lake.
“We have to take care of the two teams regardless of which two teams they are. It doesn’t matter if they are last-place teams or first-place teams.”
The Rock have not faced off against Cochrane yet in the regular season, but swept a pair of exhibition contests from their rivals.
The Crunch have dominated the NOJHL’s scoring race so far this season and the team’s weapons include Hunter Atchison (11, 12-20-32, 8), Seamus Maguire (12, 11-20-31, 28), Dustin Cordeiro (12, 16-7-23, 13), Jeran Knorr (12, 6-10-16, 6), defenceman Joey Mavrin (12, 2-10-12, 6), defenceman Joseph Thielen (12, 4-7-11, 10), John Stevenson (10, 4-6-10, 2), Tyler Minoletti (11, 3-6-9, 20), Jeremy McNeil (12, 3-5-8, 6), Zak Stepaniuk (10, 1-5-6, 17) and Zach Renfrew (10, 4-0-4, 27).
“They have a pretty powerful team again this year,” Gagne said.
“I really like their Top 3 scorers (Atchison, Maguire and Cordeiro). They are great hockey players.
“If we can shut them down, it will increase our chance of being successful. That’s going to be our objective.”
Like the Rock, the Crunch boast solid goaltending with the duo of Brett Young (536:00, 7-2-0-0, 1, 2.57, .927) and Kurtis David (184:00, 3-0-0-0, 0, 2.61, .922).
While Cunningham will be returning to the lineup, defenceman Tyler Somers (3, 0-0-0, 8) won’t be in the lineup due to illness.