By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will be looking to further distance themselves from the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners when the two sides resume their rivalry Saturday night at the McIntyre Arena.
Heading into the contest, the Rock (20-8-2-0) hold down third place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings with a nine-point cushion over the Gold Miners (15-16-2-1) — pending the outcome of the Gold Miners’ home game Friday night against the Soo Thunderbirds — which will give Timmins five games in hand by the time the puck drops Saturday night.
A victory could see that gap expand to double digits and allow the Rock to fully turn their attention to chasing down the second-place Cochrane Crunch (20-8-4-1), who currently sit three points ahead of Timmins in the standings. The Rock do have three games in hand on the Crunch, as well.
While the Gold Miners (4-6-0-0) have continued to struggle in their past 10 games, they did earn a 6-5 double overtime victory over the Rock the last time the two teams met at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex on Dec. 3.
Former Gold Miners goalie Jeff Veitch gave up a pair of early goals in that contest, but the Rock were able to battle back and salvage a point on the road thanks to captain Jordan Rendle’s last-minute goal with the netminder on the bench in favour of an extra attacker.
“That game left a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We were able to pick up a point, but we also lost a point. We played well enough to win, but we didn’t capitalize on some of our chances and there were a couple of goals that we allowed that we certainly would like to have back.
“So, the boys should be a little fired up for Saturday. It is going to be our last game of 2016 at the McIntyre Arena.”
The Rock will play their final game before the calendar switches over Wednesday night in Cochrane.
Overall, the Rock hold a 3-1-1-0 edge in the season series, with the two teams scheduled to meet five more times — including Saturday night’s game at the McIntyre Arena — before the end of the regular season.
“A lot of it has been focus,” Gagne said.
“We have been pretty consistent in our play and it is because our focus has been there. Our players are here to play hockey and they love the game. They are together as a group five or six times a week. Hockey is on their mind and their focus has been incredible.
“We have been able to implement our program and introduce new theories and philosophies. They are buying in and they are completing their assignments.”
The Gold Miners made wholesale changes prior to the Dec. 1 trade deadline, shipping out both of their goalies — Victor-Olivier Courchesne (1,339:00, 10-12-2-0, 8, 1, 3.58, .884) to the Wellington Dukes, of the OJHL, and Veitch (470:00, 3-2-0-1, 0, 3.19, .890) to the Rock.
In their place, the Gold Miners have added Ridge Gerads (189:00, 1-2-0-0, 0, 4.44, .891) from the Colorado Eagles, of the WSHL, and Allan Menary (69:00, 1-0-0-0, 0, 3.47, .897), from the Stayner Siskins, of the PJHL.
The Rock also added a pair of goalies in the days leading up to the trade deadline, bringing in Albert Rogers (426:00, 4-2-1-0, 0, 2.54, .927) from the French River Rapids and Veitch (69:00, 0-0-1-0, 0, 5.21, .857) from the Gold Miners to join Matthew Nixon (773:00, 8-5-0-0, 0, 3.96, .897).
Rogers has established himself as the Rock’s starting goalie, while Veitch and Nixon continue to battle for playing time.
The Rock — who lead the NOJHL with 163 goals despite having played the fewest games to this point in the season — have had no trouble putting the puck in the net this year.
Tyler Romain (30, 22-19-41, 25), Jordan Rendle (30, 20-20-40, 46), Bain Cunningham (30, 11-28-39, 35), Wayne Mathieu (28, 14-15-29, 14), Jacob Shankar (25, 12-17-2, 17), Stewart Parnell (28, 5-24-29, 10), Cory Sprague (30, 16-12-28, 42), Cole Gilligan (30, 15-12-27, 2) and Alexandre Brisson (28, 12-14-26, 24) are all enjoying fine offensive seasons.
Not too many teams can ice three lines of forwards who are exceeding, averaging, or nearly averaging a point a game.
Up front, the Gold Miners still have a number of dangerous offensive players, including Ford (34, 22-20-42, 32), Tyler Fyfe (34, 12-23-35, 14), Ashton Amaya (34, 16-16-32, 24), Alex Storjohann (24, 9-22-31, 34), William Mizuik (30, 13-14-27, 4), Stavros Soilis (26, 9-7-16, 8), Matthew Brassard (34, 9-7-16, 16) and Kirkland Lake native Marshal Nikitin (20, 5-9-14, 14) who can put the puck in the net.
Despite the changes the Gold Miners have made to their lineup, Gagne is not expecting anything different from them when they visit the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
“When it comes down to it, it is just going to be our program against theirs,” he said.
“Hopefully, we will be able to excel at ours better than they do at theirs.”
The Rock currently only have 20 players — 10 forwards, seven defencemen and three goalies — on their roster and that number has been further reduced by the upper-body injury to defenceman Jared Hester (28, 8-10-18, 36), who likely will not return to the lineup until the new year.
It remains to be seen if affiliate forward Evan Kentish-Stack (2, 0-0-0, 0), whose Timmins Majors will take on the Minor Midget Wolves in a GNML battle Friday night in Sudbury, will be available to suit up for the Rock Saturday night.
“He is a smart player and he has got good drive,” Gagne said.
“Whenever we ask him to do something, he really pays attention. It hasn’t taken long for him to catch on to the few assignments we have asked him to complete so far.
“He is a nice little player and I like him.”
There may only be two games left before the Christmas break, but Gagne is not too worried about that being a distraction Saturday night against the Gold Miners or Wednesday night against the Crunch in Cochrane.
“They know that they have two more games before the break, but they are looking forward to those games,” he said.
“When things are going well and things are positive on and off the ice, the players are just eager to get to the rink and that’s what makes a big difference.
“They are going to have 13 days off during the break, but most of the players will be working out on their own.”
When the Rock return from their Christmas break they will travel to Kirkland Lake for a game against the Gold Miners at the Joe Mavrinac Community Centre on Friday, Jan. 6.
NOJHL NOTES — Cunningham was named one of the NOJHL’s Three Stars of the Week. The others are Soo Thunderbirds goalie Brandon Gordon and Blind River Beavers netminder Myles Hektor … The Powassan Voodoos have moved up to No. 3 in the CJHL’s weekly rankings after being ranked No. 5 the previous week. The Thunderbirds, who received an honourable mention last week, are ranked No. 12 this week. Collège Français de Longueuil, of the LHJAAAQ, continue to sit at No. 1.