By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Rock will be looking to successfully negotiate the Rapids when French River pays a visit to the McIntyre Arena Friday night.
It will be the first meeting between the two NOJHL squads who are still searching for their first victories on the season.
Last year, Timmins (0-1-0-0) won three of their four encounters with the Rapids who took and 0-2-0-0 record into Iroquois Falls for a Wednesday night contest against the Eskis.
The Rock took both 2015-16 encounters at the McIntyre Arena, 9-3 on Nov. 27 and 8-3 on March 5, while they split the two games at the Noelville Arena, winning 3-0 on Nov. 14 and then losing 10-6 on Feb. 20.
“Our game plan for this game is going to be pretty much the same as the game plan we had for Saturday’s season opener, except we are hoping to score more goals,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
The Rock dropped that contest 4-3 to the visiting Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, while the Rapids dropped a 6-2 decision to the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake on Friday night suffered a 4-1 setback at the hands of the Voodoos in Powassan Saturday night.
“We were really aggressive against the Gold Miners and our forecheck was really good,” Gagne said.
“We were happy with our forecheck. We were happy with our shots on goal. This week, we worked on a lot of little things like faceoffs and little trick plays.
“We worked on our power play, because that was not very successful against Kirkland Lake.”
That might be a bit of an understatement given that the Rock were just 1-11 with the man advantage Saturday night.
“We have tweaked it a little bit this week and we have been working on it in practice,” Gagne said.
Newcomer Cory Sprague had the lone power-play goal for the Rock against the Gold Miners Saturday night.
Special teams in general have been an issue for the Rapids in the early going, as the squad has yet to score a power-play goal in 10 opportunities and they have surrendered five goals in 13 shorthanded situations during their first two games.
Even though the Rapids are 0-2-0-0 on the season, Gagne knows they are a lot better than the squad that finished with a record of 2-49-2-1 last season.
“At this time of year, we have to focus on our program and not worry too much about the team we are playing against,” he said.
“We have to take care of our assignments, but we also have to be aware of the other team and its players, as well.”
One player in particular who will not go unnoticed Friday night is Rapids forward Caleb Rich (2, 0-1-1, 4), who scored three goals and added three assists in the French River’s lone victory over the Rock as a 16 year old.
“This year, our team is a little bit more physical and we finish our checks,” Gagne said.
“We are relentless on the puck and we make things happen out there.”
With a record of 0-1-0-0, the Rock are far from being in a must-win situation heading into Friday night’s game but given the parity in the NOJHL this year, Gagne feels it is important for the Rock to collect their first win of 2016-17 sooner, rather than later.
“During our next four games, we are going to be playing the same two teams twice, so we definitely have to get into the win column, for sure,” he said.
“I also really want to see us continue that competitiveness we have displayed during the two exhibition wins and the regular-season opener.
“If we continue to play like we did Saturday night, we are going to play some pretty good hockey this year and the wins are going to come.”
Following Friday night’s game, the Rock will play a home-and-home series with the Voodoos, Sept. 22 at the McIntyre Arena and Sept. 24 in Powassan, before travelling to French River for a game against the Rapids on Sept. 25.
The Rock will be with defenceman Brendan Campbell for Friday night’s game, as he serves the second game of the four-game suspension he picked up for a check-to-the-head penalty during last year’s playoffs, but rookie forward Stewart Parnell, who missed Saturday’s game because of a lower-body injury, is expect to make his NOJHL debut against the Rapids.
“Stewart has been practising this week, so we are going to see him getting some ice time,” Gagne said.
“He is really going to excel. We know he will.”
Wearing his general manager’s hat, Gagne has been working the phones in an effort to bring a couple of more players into camp but “nothing” is likely to happen between now and Friday night’s contest.
“We are trying awfully hard to improve our club,” he said.
“One way is by working with the players we have here and the other way is if we can get somebody new to come in.”
Friday’s contest will pit Gagne, a veteran of 397 NHL games with Colorado, New Jersey, Toronto and the New York Islanders, against fellow NHL alumni Moe Mantha, who played 697 games with the Winnipeg Jets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota North Stars and the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Moe and I really get along well,” Gagne said, of the North Bay-born Mantha.
“We were drafted in the same year and we played against each other. I will always remember the time we were having a pre-game skate in Winnipeg and we were by the boards and he came over we talked for a while. We had a bond because we are both from Northern Ontario.
“He is a nice guy and an excellent coach. I wish him all the best, except when he is playing against us, obviously.”
Veteran goalie Matthew Nixon stopped 33 of the 37 shots he faced while being tagged with the loss Saturday night against the Gold Miners, allowed at least of a couple of goals Gagne said he would like to have back.
The coach was not about to tip his hand at this point, however, in terms of whether Nixon would be between the pipes Friday night or if 19-year-old Martins Ferry, OH, native Caleb Barris might make his first start in a Rock uniform.
NOJHL NOTES — The NOJHL’s Three Stars of the Week are Blind River Beavers defenceman Vincent Robbins, Gold Miners forward Kevin Ford and Cochrane Crunch forward Konnar Dechaine … The Rapids have traded forward Isaak Picken (18-1-2-3, 12) to the Gananoque Islanders, of the EBJCHL … The Cochrane Crunch have acquired Avery Siau (42, 13-16-29, 44) from the Thunder Bay North Stars, of the SIJHL.