By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – A lot has changed since the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners made their last visit to the McIntyre Arena.
Jeffrey Veitch (279:00, 1-2-0-1, 0, 3.22, .891), who was in net for the visitors on Sept. 10 as the Gold Miners edged the Rock 4-3 in their home opener, remains on the roster.
Kevin Ford (14, 7-9-16, 14), who netted a pair of goals that night, and William Mizuik (10, 3-4-7, 0), who had one of the other two, also still wear the blue, gold and white of the Gold Miners.
Taylor Urch, who had the other marker, is no longer on the roster, however. Also gone are Alex Olschewske (traded to the Campbellton Tigers, of the MHL), Damian Caringi, and Cory Hurtubise.
Arriving on the shuttle into Kirkland Lake have been forwards Blake Cudmore, Adamo Asselin and Alex Storjohann, as well as defenders Brandon Carr-Ansah, Davide Asselin, Austin Anselmo, Dayton Keith and Michael Fradette.
In addition, forward Marshal Nikitin — who was out with an injury on Sept. 10 — is back in the lineup.
Say what you like about Gold Miners coach and general manager Marc Lafleur, he certainly isn’t afraid to make changes to his roster.
To date, those changes have not had a positive impact on the Gold Miners’ (14, 5-7-1-1, 12) position in the NOJHL East Division standings.
Entrenched in fourth place, the Gold Miners trail the Rock by six points and Timmins has a pair of games in hand. In addition, they sit just two points ahead of the surging Iroquois Falls Eskis.
The Rock took the most recent meeting with the Gold Miners, posting a 5-3 victory at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex in Kirkland Lake on Oct. 7.
Five different Rock players — Cole Gilligan (12, 5-8-13, 0), Jacob Shankar (11, 7-6-13, 10), Tyler Romain (12, 7-8-15, 6), Alexandre Brisson (11, 5-3-8, 8) and Cory Sprague (12, 7-5-12, 12) — found the back of the net in that contest, while Caleb Barris (486:00, 7-1-0-0, 0, 3.08, .909) made 25 saves to earn the victory.
Shankar, who missed the past couple of games with an upper-body injury, practised with the Rock on Wednesday but he remains day-to-day and his status for Saturday night’s clash with the Gold Miners remains up in the air.
After starting the season with just five defencemen on their roster, the Rock have made a couple of additions to their blue-line.
Nineteen-year-old James Watier (32, 2-4-6, 42) spent the 2015-16 season with the Cleveland Barons, of the T1EHL.
Listed at 5-10 and 165 pounds, is a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman who is expected to bring skill to the Rock blue-line.
“He makes a good first pass out of his zone and he has a good shot,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“He is a good skater and he plays well in his own zone.”
Watier arrived in Timmins on Wednesday and was expected to be on the ice with his new teammates in time for Thursday’s practice.
Meanwhile, Colin Esperon (20, 6-11-17, 44) is a big, strong blue-liner/forward who played with Rock rookie Marcus Blackned (10, 6-10-16, 4) on the Cree Nation Bears, a a Quebec Midget ‘BB’ squad.
Listed at 6-3 and 154 pounds, Gagne says Esperon has impressed the coaching staff with a heavy shot.
“He has a great shot and he is a great skater,” Gagne said.
“Yesterday (Tuesday) in practice, he would score on 75% of the drills involving shots on net. He has good size and he likes to get involved. He has got a good compete level.”
Gagne anticipates both Watier and Esperon will be in the lineup for Saturday night’s game with the Gold Miners.
The coach and general manager says the Rock will prepare for Saturday night’s contest the same way they used to when the Gold Miners were sitting at or near the top of the NOJHL East Division standings.
“If you look at this league, you can’t really afford to take any team for granted,” Gagne said.
“The Eskis beat the Soo (Eagles) 8-2, they beat Powassan 4-3 and they beat the Thunderbirds 6-2. You look at the standings and those results are the total opposite of what you would expect looking at the standings.
“It may be an old cliche, but you have to bring your A game and play at your highest potential if you are going to have success. You have to compete.”
Gagne felt the Rock played well enough to beat the Gold Miners during their season opener back on Sept. 10.
“The goalie situation (Veitch outplaying the Rock’s Matthew Nixon) was a big factor in that game,” he said.
“Both teams have made quite a few changes to their lineups since that contest, so it might be a totally different game. I hope it will be similar, other than the final score, because we outshot them and outplayed them.”
Gagne traditionally does not like to reveal in advance which of his goalies will get the starting assignment prior to a game, but given the impressive run Barris is on can fans expect to see him in the net Saturday night?
“The philosophy on every team, I think, is if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
“We will see how things go in practice, though. You never know. Barris could come down with a virus, or maybe he won’t be working as hard in practice. Players have dog days.
“That’s why I never like to say it is written in stone.”
It is safe to say Demaine Wray will not be between the pipes, however, as the Rock have released him after taking a look at him in practice for a week.
“He is a nice little player,” Gagne said.
“He is just a (birth year) 1999, so we wanted to take a good look at him for next year. He has a lot of potential but we didn’t think he was ready to come in and replace either of the players we have now (Barris and Nixon).”
After graduating from the GNML’s Timmins Majors, Rock blue-liner Nicholas Hautanen started his Junior ‘A’ hockey career in a Gold Miners uniform, before being acquired along with forward Cosimo Amore in a 2014-15 deal that saw defenceman/forward Jamey Lauzon shipped to Kirkland Lake.
“I have fond memories of my time there, but it was short lived and I am happy to be here playing for the Rock now,” Hautanen said.
Saturday’s opponents will be just another team, as far as the 20-year-old Rock alternate captain is concerned.
“It’s always import to get the two points,” Hautanen said.
“At the end of the day, that’s the goal. If we come out and play a good team game and keep our heads on our shoulders, and stay out of the penalty box, we should be all right.”
That, according to the 6-2, 205 pound, Timmins native, is what the Rock did to earn their victory in Kirkland Lake on Oct. 7.
“Our forecheck was very impressive in that game,” Hautanen said.
“If we can keep that up, we should have a pretty good chance of winning Saturday night.”
One of the veterans on the Rock roster, Hautanen is happy to see the arrival of Watier and Esperon but said playing with just five blue-liners was not a major issue most nights.
“It was great to be out there and getting a lot of ice time,” he said.
“I think our program works well and when we were rolling five defencemen, there were not problems.”
The Rock will release their third in a series of 25 hockey cards during Saturday night’s game, this one featuring the likeness of Hautanen.
“It’s nice to see the kids out there collecting the cards, but I really wish I could be there signing a team picture instead,” he said.
“This is a team game and it is not all about one guy, or one performance. The kids love it though and even some of the old folks love it. It’s good for the community and it gets people involved.”
Has Hautanen, who will be signing the cards immediately following the game, received any helpful advice from either Jordan Rendle or Bain Cunningham, the players featured on the first two cards in the series?
“They suggested I bring some water and a towel, because it can get a little sweaty,” he said.