By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock — the No. 19 ranked team in the CJHL — will be looking to add a little more distance between themselves and Kirkland Lake when they welcome the Gold Miners to the McIntyre Arena Tuesday night.
Heading into the contest, the Rock (14-4-0-0) hold down third place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings, five points ahead of the Gold Miners (10-8-2-1).
And the Rock, winners of three-straight games, still have two games in hand on their rivals.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne’s squad certainly appears to be firing on all cylinders.
“It (being ranked No. 19 in Canada) is nice,” he said.
“It’s nice to see the players getting some recognition for all the hard work they are putting in. It’s like getting a pat on the back from your coach or your teacher. It just feels good.”
Gagne, of course, realizes they don’t hand out the Dudley Hewitt Cup to the team that’s ranked No. 19 in Canada during the second week of November — or at the end of the season, for that matter.
“All of the accolades are nice, but we have to continue to work hard,” he said.
The Gold Miners spoiled the party at Timmins’ regular-season opener on Sept. 10 by posting a 4-3 victory at the McIntrye Arena, but the Rock have won the past two games against Kirkland Lake — 5-3 at the Joe Mavrinac Community Centre on Oct. 7 and 3-2 in overtime at the McIntyre Arena on Oct. 22.
“The first game, we outshot them and we outplayed them, we just didn’t outscore them,” Gagne said.
“The last game was Junior ‘A’ hockey at it’s best. There was a lot of strategy going on, lots of forechecking and a lot of good defensive zone coverage. It was a good game to watch and the bonus was that we were successful.
“We know we are going to have our hands full when we play them Tuesday night, but they are going to have their hands full, as well. We are riding a nice little streak here and we want to see it continue.”
Following Oct. 7’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Rock, Gold Miners coach and general manager Marc Lafleur suggested even though his team had been playing better hockey of late, they were still mired in a slump.
Currently riding a two-game winning streak, Kirkland Lake appears to finally be making some progress to ending those early season struggles.
“I think we have only lost three points out of our last eight or nine games,” Lafleur said.
“We are starting to play much better now. There is still room for improvement, but we understand it is a long process with only having two veterans back from last year.
“Our guys are starting to understand what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable in certain areas of the game. Some guys thought their play was acceptable when they needed to be talked to know the expectations of playing Kirkland Lake Gold Miners hockey isn’t what they thought it was.
“Also, getting a few more bodies helped, as well.”
Since their last visit to the McIntyre Arena, the Gold Miners have acquired defenceman Liam Watson (2, 0-0-0, 4) from the Markham Royals, of the OJHL., while shipping off blue-liner Dayton Keith (14, 1-4-5, 25) to the Campbell River Storm, of the VIJHL.
“We are getting close to having the team that we want to be, but as to exactly where we are, I don’t know yet,” Lafleur said.
“The consistency we are getting out of a couple of players has to be better. We are seeing flashes of what we want to see out of certain players some nights, but some nights we don’t.”
Trailing the Rock by five points heading into Tuesday night’s contest, Lafleur knows it will be a big game. Win and they can cut the deficit to three points, but lose in regulation and they will see it grow to seven points.
“Any time you play a divisional rival, it’s a huge game,” he said.
“It is still very early in the season, though, and a lot of things can happen over the course of a year, so we are not looking at anything beyond Tuesday night. We are not looking at the standings. We are just trying to get to where we should be. The last time I checked, nobody has won the league in November.”
The Rock have added a pair of new blue-liners — James Watier (5, 1-4-5, 0) and Patrick Gazich (4, 1-3-4, 4) — since their last encounter with the Gold Miners and Gagne is pleased with their progress.
“James and Patrick and starting to get a little bit more ice time as they continue learn our program,” he said.
“They are continuing to become more comfortable out there and they are playing with instinct. They are both playing five-on-five, on the penalty kill and on the power play.
“They are two very good hockey players and they are good additions to our team.”
Watier was rewarded for his strong play by being named one of the NOJHL’s Three Stars of the Week, along with Blind River Beavers goalie Myles Hektor and Beavers forward Zak Lambrecht.
If the Gold Miners are to have any hope of slowing down the Rock’s high-octane offence, they will have to be sharp on special teams.
The Rock scored seven power-play opportunities during a pair of weekend wins — 8-1 over the Eskis in Iroquois Falls Friday night and 9-4 over the Espanola Express at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night — to improve their power-play efficiency to 25.4%, tops in the NOJHL.
With an efficiency of 83.0%, the Gold Miners penalty-kill unit is currently ranked No. 7 in the league.
Offsetting that statistic, to some extent, is the fact the Gold Miners have scored eight shorthanded goals so far this season, to lead the NOJHL.
The Rock have, of course, allowed just one shorthanded goal to this point in the campaign.
When it comes to the penalty kill, the Rock remain No. 8 in the NOJHL with an efficiency of 82.3%, up slightly over the past couple of games.
The Gold Miners are ranked No. 9 on the power play, with an efficiency rating of 16.2%.
With just one shorthanded goal on the season, the Rock are tied for No. 7 in that category, while the Gold Miners have allowed three and are tied for No. 3 in the NOJHL.
Overall, the Rock boast the top-ranked offence in the NOJHL with 101 goals in their first 18 games of the season.
A balanced attack — which includes captain Jordan Rendle (18, 14-12-26, 34), Tyler Romain (18, 15-10-25, 11), Bain Cunningham (18, 5-17-22, 23), Wayne Mathieu (16, 10-10-20, 2), Marcus Blackned (15, 6-14-20, 4), Jacob Shankar (17, 8-9-17, 12), Cole Gilligan (18, 7-9-16, 0), Cory Sprague (18, 9-6-15, 26), defenceman Jared Hester (18, 6-9-15, 22 and Alexandre Brisson (17, 8-6-14, 12) — makes it hard for opponents to concentrate on shutting down any one line.
Nobody in a Rock uniform has a hotter hand at the moment than Romain, who started his Junior ‘A’ hockey career as a member of the Gold Miners.
In the two wins on the weekend, Romain scored five goals and added an assist. That was good enough to move him up to No. 15 in the NOJHL scoring race.
The Gold Miners may not be able to match the Rock goal for goal, but their lineup does feature some impressive offensive weapons, including Kevin Ford (21, 12-14-26, 20), Ashton Amaya (21, 10-10-20, 16), Tyler Fyfe (21, 6-12-18, 8), Austin Ramirez (21, 6-11-17, 6), Stavros Soilis (20, 9-6-15, 6), William Mizuik (17, 7-8-15, 0), Alex Storjohann (11, 4-9-13, 16) and Matthew Brassard (21, 6-5-11, 8).
Only the Powassan Voodoos, with 41, have allowed fewer than the 58 goals surrendered by the Rock to this point in the NOJHL campaign.
The Rock’s duo of Caleb Barris (548:00, 8-1-0-0, 0, 3.07, .910) and Matthew Nixon (541:00, 6-3-0-0, 0, 3.33, .910) have been overshadowed by the team’s offence, but they have been steady and give the team a chance to win most nights.
The Gold Miners have also received good goaltending from creasemates Victor-Olivier Courchesne (840:00, 7-6-2-0, 1, 3.07, .892) and Jeffrey Veitch (432:00, 3-2-0-1, 0, 2.92, .894).
Both the Rock and the Gold Miners are healthy heading into Tuesday night’s clash at the McIntyre Arena and neither squad has any suspension concerns.
NOJHL Notes — The game between the Gold Miners and the Crunch at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane that had originally been scheduled for Friday night will now be played on Thursday night. Game time remains 7:30 p.m. … In addition to the Rock being listed at No. 19 in the CJHL weekly rankings, the Powassan Voodoos move up to No. 10 and the Crunch up to No 15 … After taking on the Gold Miners Tuesday night, the Rock will embark on a three-game road trip that will see them make stops in Blind River Friday night, Sault Ste. Marie Saturday night and Sault, Mich., Sunday afternoon.