By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will play host to the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena Wednesday night.
Fans will certainly need a program as the Gold Miners team that takes to the ice will be far different than the one the Rock faced in the home-and-home series the squads played to open the 2015-16 NOJHL season Sept. 11 and 12.
Even though the Gold Miners sport a record of 6-1-0-0, with their only loss being the 6-1 setback they suffered at the hands of the Rock (5-4-0-1) Sept. 12 in Timmins, coach and general manager Marc Lafleur has made a number of changes to his roster in the past month.
The Gold Miners made a series of moves on Sept. 21, as they acquired forward Andrew Rupert (3, 0-0-0, 4) from Minnesota Iron Rangers, of the SIJHL, and defenceman Brennan McGuire (3, 0-0-0, 0) from St. Jerome Panthers, of the LJHQAAA in exchange for forward Charles Etienne Bruneau-Crete, who played in Kirkland Lake in 2014-15 (48, 11-8-19, 23), but had seen any action in 2015-16.
Three days later, the Gold Miners shipped defenceman Justin Phillips (5, 1-0-1, 4) to the Blind River Beavers and defenceman Kyle Patterson (4, 0-0-0, 0) to the Rayside-Balfour Canadians.
On Sept. 28, the Gold Miners traded forward Alexi Rivet (3, 0-0-0, 0) to the Powassan Voodoos.
Two days later, the Gold Miners traded defenceman Brendan Jay (5, 0-3-3, 8) to Peace River Navigators, of the NWJHL.
Finally, on Friday, the Gold Miners traded forward Declan Conway (4, 0-1-1, 2) to the Fort Erie Meteors, of the GOJHL.
“We have solidified our blue-line a little more and, with that said, we didn’t revamp the whole lineup, we didn’t panic,” Lafleur said.
“It’s a long year and we identified some areas we needed to work on and that’s what we have been doing the last three weeks.
“At this level what I quickly noticed when I came here from Rouyn-Noranda is that it is a daily grind. If you start waiting until you start losing or if you rest a little and start bypassing some opportunities, you are going to be too late.
“More than anything, we wanted to bring in guys who can give us reliable minutes and I think that is what we have right now.”
Like the Rock, the Gold Miners’ game is predicated on minimizing the opportunities they give to other teams.
“Our philosophy is the elimination of mistakes,” Lafleur said.
“We want to put ourselves in a position where we make fewer mistakes. When you make fewer mistakes, chances are you have the puck more.”
The newcomers to the Gold Miners’ lineup have quickly adapted to the team’s systems.
“We pride ourselves on doing a lot of video here,” Lafleur said.
“So, coming in they have gotten to know exactly what we want early on.”
As well as things have been going for the Gold Miners in the win column, Lafleur realizes that can quickly change in the NOJHL.
“Right now, it looks like everything is going well, but we could go in there tomorrow (Wednesday) and find things aren’t clicking and they are playing better than we are, so it is all about making adjustments and making sure whomever you put together are gelling that night.”
The Gold Miners are averaging almost four-and-a-half goals a game, but two players — Brayden Stortz (7, 7-8-15, 6) and Logan Fredericks (6, 8-2-10, 2) — account for almost half of their 31 goals.
“It’s a concern,” Lafleur said.
“We know we have the personnel. We know we have guys who can definitely score who aren’t scoring right now. It is just a matter of them getting adjusted to the pace. We are getting our chances and I know they can bury pucks.
“We just have to give it time and once they start finding their groove it will be OK.”
The 14 goals the Gold Miners have given up this season are the fewest in the 12-team NOJHL.
Goalies Marc Audet (300:00, 4-1-0-0, 2, 1.80, 0.936) and Tyler Mazzocato (120:00, 2-0-0-0, 0, 2.00, 0.897) have both been solid in the Kirkland Lake net this season.
Lafleur feels he will have a better assessment of how good his team is following a three-game stretch that will see them play the Rock Wednesday night, the undefeated Voodoos in Powassan Friday night and the winless Rapids in French River Saturday night.
“I think that will give us a better assessment of where we are offensively and where we are defensively,” he said.
“If things go well, we are not going to jump up and down and start taking a couple of days off and if we lose a couple we will just get back to the grindstone. It’s early October and there is a lot of hockey left and we will make a adjustments. We have always operated that way.
“Nothing is ever as good as it seems and nothing is ever as bad as it seems. In between somewhere is reality.”
Heading into the three-game stretch, the Gold Miners are healthy and will only be missing forward Jamey Lauzon (6, 1-5-6, 24), a former Abitibi Eskimos, from the lineup.
Lauzon picked up a six-game suspension for checking to head major plus two game misconducts in final 10 minutes of a game on Sept. 26 against the Rayside-Balfour Canadians.
Rock goalie Logan Ferrington (410:00, 3-3-0-1, 0, 2.78, .928), who was bowled over three times in his crease by Lauzon during the first two games between the two teams, will likely not be too disappointed to hear the news.
The Rock, of course, have made a number of moves of their own since playing those initial two games against the Gold Miners.
On Sept. 21, they acquired forward Ryan Theriault (4, 5-2-7, 2), a former member of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, from Whitney Fury, of the OJHL.
Two days later, the Rock re-acquired defenceman Joe Olson (4, 0-3-3, 4) from Steinbach Pistons (MJHL).
In addition, the team has dropped three players — forward Ravinder Shokar (6, 0-1-1, 12) and defencemen Justin Mendoza (4, 0-3-3, 2) and Braxton Davis (5, 0-0-0, 2) — who they are currently attempting to trade.
Despite all the changes both teams have made, Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne expects the Gold Miners to put up a fierce battle Wednesday night.
“They have loaded up on a little bit more talent since the start of the year and Kirkland Lake always competes,” he said.
“Their forecheck is incredible and they have a really potent power play. We have to make sure we don’t take some of the undisciplined penalties we have been taking the last couple of games.
“If we can stay out of the box, that is going to help because five-on-five we can compete. That is not an issue.
“And if we get power-play opportunities, we have to capitalize on our chances. The special-teams units will make a big difference for tomorrow night’s game.”
The Rock will be without second-line left-winger Bain Cunningham (10, 2-3-5, 6) for Wednesday night’s game against the Gold Miners.
“He has a lower-body injury and he is going for physiotherapy right now,” Gagne said.
Cunningham was injured during the second period of Sunday night’s 6-2 win over the Eskimos in Iroquois Falls.
“He wasn’t on the ice yesterday (Monday) or today and with us having the weekend off ahead of us we are going to give him some more time to heal and make sure it is 100%,” Gagne said.
Cunningham’s spot on the left side of the line with centre Jordan Rendle (10, 5-5-10, 4) and right-winger Devin Panzeca (10, 8-4-12, 2) will be taken by Timmins native Tyler Romain (10, 3-4-7, 2), who filled in Sunday.
“Tyler has been playing excellent hockey,” Gagne said.
“He is buying into our program and doing what we are asking him to do and now that he is in that position (one the second line), he is scoring goals.”
Cunningham’s spot in the lineup will be taken by Cole Gilligan (2, 0-0-0, 0) who had been out with an upper-body injury.
Heading into Wednesday night’s game, the Rock trail the third-place Gold Miners by one point in the NOJHL’s East Division standings, although Kirkland Lake has three games in hand.
That makes the contest the proverbial four-point game.
“We have got to compete and bring our A game,” Gagne said.
“It is going to be just a matter of getting things going early. Hopefully, during the first 10 minutes we will be able to dictate now the game is going to be played, with our forecheck, our commitment and our compete level.
“Kirkland Lake does the same things, so it will be a hard-fought game, for sure.
Game time at the McIntyre Arena is 7:30 p.m.