By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Neither the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners nor the Timmins Rock have much to play for when the NOJHL regular season comes to an end Wednesday night at the McIntyre Arena.
The Gold Miners have locked up third place in the NOJHL’s East Divison standings, while the fourth-place Rock are preparing to face arch rival Iroquois Falls in a best-of-three series scheduled to begin Saturday night at the McIntyre Arena.
Still, there are a few interesting story angles with the puck scheduled to drop at 7:30 p.m.
For example, Gold Miners sniper Brayden Stortz (53, 37-59-96, 32) needs just four points to overtake leader Hunter Atchison (53, 50-49-99, 34), of the Cochrane Crunch, to win the NOJHL scoring championship.
The Crunch have already finished their regular-season schedule, so all Atchison can do is watch and hope the Rock shut down Stortz Wednesday night.
Rock leading scorer Zachary Kercz (52, 26-55-81, 86) , meanwhile, would have to channel his inner Darryl Sittler — almost twice — to have a shot at capturing the scoring title.
Stortz’s linemate, Logan Fredericks (52, 50-35-85, 51) is tied for the NOJHL goal scoring lead with 50, so one more would likely hand him that title.
Both Tyler Peters (52, 42-43-85, 44), of the Powassan Voodoos, and Dustin Cordeiro (54, 39-47-86, 49), of the Crunch have finished their regular season.
From a Rock perspective, consistency is likely the one thing the squad will be striving for Wednesday night.
After ending their five-game losing streak Saturday night against the visiting French River Rapids, the Rock will be looking to carry some momentum into their first-round playoff series against the Eskis.
“It is going to be really important to carry the momentum from that game into Wednesday night,” said Rock forward Landen Matechuk.
“Kirkland Lake has a really strong team and we are going to have to play super hard if we are going to beat them.
“It will dictate how we are going to play in the playoffs, so we are going to be working on things that matter like the power play and sticking to our forecheck.”
Matechuk (14, 7-15-22, 12) — acquired from the English River Miners, of the SIJHL, just prior to the Jan. 10 trade deadline — was one of the final additions to the Rock team.
After dropping a 7-1 decision to the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake March 3, the Fort Langley, B.C., native knows the Rock will have to be better Wednesday night.
“We are going to have to simplify our game, for sure,” Matechuk said.
“We are going to have to get the pucks off the glass in our defensive zone and then work hard down low in the offensive zone and cycle the puck. That’s what has made us successful in the past.”
The Rock have won all three meetings with the Gold Miners on home ice this season — 5-3 on Dec. 16, 4-2 on Oct. 7 and 6-1 on Sept. 12.
They have, however, dropped all four of their games at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex in Kirkland Lake — 7-1 on March 3, 8-1 on Nov. 20, 9-4 on Nov. 5 and 4-2 on Sept. 11.
“We have been very successful at home this season, so it is important to keep that momentum going,” Matechuk said.
“Our fans are great here and we want to put on a show for them. It should be a good game Wednesday.”
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne feels the large, noisy crowds at the McIntyre Arena have been the difference between their encounters with the Gold Miners on home ice and on the road this season.
“We have an extra player at home,” Gagne said.
“You get 650 fans in the stands and it’s great. It really helps.
“It’s also the routine we have at home. We have our pre-game meal at home. We relax. We have a little pre-game nap, then we get ready for the big game. We are used to the boards. We are used to the rink.
“We don’t want to be called homers, but they are in the same position (at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex.”
Gagne is well aware of the damage Storz (three goals, one assist) and Fredericks (one goal, four assists) against the Rock March 3 in Kirkland Lake.
“We are just going to roll our lines, but make sure we are aware when they are on the ice,” he said.
“We will just have to make sure we finish our checks against those two players, as well as the other Gold Miners.
“If we can do that and shut them down, then our odds of winning will improve.
“Our style of play is puck pursuit. If they have the puck, then we are going to put pressure on them. Taking away their time and space will give them less time to make good plays.”
During their first three games against the Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena the Rock have had success getting physical.
“If you look at the stats, they don’t have a big team so we should be able to finish our checks against them and be a little bit physical,” Gagne said.
“If we do that, they might end up taking penalties.
“If we put pressure on them and provoke them, it will be like playoff hockey.”
The coach is determined to see the Rock put forth a better effort than they did in Kirkland Lake on March 3.
“The last time we played them, we gave them too many shots from inside the house, way too many,” Gagne said.
“We have been working on that in practice this week. We have been working on our defensive zone coverage, limiting the opposition to outside shots. Hopefully, that will help us out.”
The Rock will be without defenceman Andrew Castagna (lower-body injury) and forward Aaron Kerr (serving the third game of a three-game suspension), as well as assistant coach Eric Paquette (serving the third game of a three-game suspension) for Wednesday night’s game.
The team is hoping, however, that Castagna will be ready for the start of the playoffs on Wednesday.
“He just needs to get clearance from the doctor and believe that will happen at his doctor’s appointment this week.”
Gagne feels even more important than the final score Wednesday night will be how the Rock play.
“I would say there was 90% on the positive side to our game against the Rapids Saturday night,” he said.
“So, it is the way we play Wednesday night that will be more important than the outcome.”
Gagne feels Wednesday’s contest will be good preparation for the start of the playoff series against the Gold Miners.
“I would rather be playing a game than just practising,” he said.