By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock possess the third-best record in the NOJHL heading into Saturday night’s game at the McIntyre Arena.
Even after dropping two of three games during last weekend’s three-game road trip, the Rock (16-6-0-0) continue to hold down third place in the East Division standings and are tied with the West Division-leading Rayside-Balfour Canadians for third spot overall.
On the other end of the spectrum, the visiting French River Rapids (1-19-1-1) have sunk to the bottom of the 12-team league.
That record is, to some extent, a little deceiving, however.
In their past two games, for example, the Rapids have been quite competitive, losing 2-1 to the Cochrane Crunch on Sunday and 3-1 to the Iroquois Falls Eskis on Saturday.
The Rock have won all three meetings with the Rapids to this point in the season — 6-3 at the McIntyre Arena on Sept. 16, 7-3 in French River on Sept. 24 and 4-3 in overtime in French River on Oct. 29 — they have had to work for each of those victories.
“Their goaltending made a difference for them in the last game we played against them,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“He (Albert Rogers, 545:00, 1-7-1-1, 0, 4.95, .902) shut us down. We had great opportunities, but we just couldn’t capitalize. He made some great saves.”
Rogers, in fact, turned aside 61 of the 65 shots the Rock peppered him with that evening.
“They have three goalies right now and if you look at their last four or five games, they are only allowing a couple of goals a game,” Gagne said.
In addition to Rogers, the Rapids crease also includes Korlan Vader (445:00, 0-7-0-0, 0, 4.86, .908) and former Timmins Eagle Scott Adams (341:00, 0-5-0-0, 0, 7.05, .872).
“They have been playing very effectively defensively and I think that is what we are going to have to do,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have to work at keeping our goals against down. We had it good there for a while, but we are going to have to work hard in practice.
“We know if we are strong defensively, we will get enough opportunities offensively.”
With 123 goals on the season, the Rock continue to be the top scoring team in the NOJHL, but after giving up 20 goals in last weekend’s three road games, goaltending appears to be an area of concern.
The decision by Caleb Barris (548:00, 8-1-0-0, 3.07, .910) to quit hockey prior to the road trip has certainly not helped the situation.
With his departure, the Rock were forced to call upon the services of affiliate player Dante Garito (8:00, 0-0-0-0, 7.79, .750) to back up Matthew Nixon (773:00, 8-5-0 -0, 3.96, .897) during the trip.
Since returning to Timmins, Gagne has been working the phones in an effort to bring in an established goaltender to team with Nixon.
“We are looking to bring in a No. 1 goalie,” he said.
“We are looking for a goalie who will come in and bring some experience to our team.”
The Daily Press learned on Wednesday that a deal to acquire a goaltender is in place, but nothing can be announced until all of the paperwork has been completed.
It remains to be seen if that new goaltender will be in town in time to dress for Saturday’s game against the Rapids.
One player who should be back in the lineup is forward Marcus Blackned (15, 6-14-20, 4), who missed the past four games due to an illness.
Forward Jacob Shankar (18, 8-10-18, 17), however, will not be available, as he will be serving the final game of his four-game suspension picked up after he was assessed a slew footing penalty during the last home game against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners on Nov. 8.
Even without Shankar, the Rock still have plenty of firepower thanks to players like captain Jordan Rendle (22, 17-15-32, 38), Tyler Romain (22, 17-12-29, 11), Bain Cunningham (22, 8-19-27, 25), Wayne Mathieu (20, 11-14-25, 4), Cory Sprague (22, 13-8-21, 30), Alexandre Brisson (21, 11-8-19, 18), Cole Gilligan (22, 9-9-18, 0), defenceman Spencer Segui (22, 3-15-18, 20), defenceman Jared Hester (22, 6-9-15, 30), Stewart Parnell (20, 2-13-15, 8), defenceman Brendan Campbell (18, 1-11-12, 25), defenceman Nicholas Hautanen (21, 3-6-9, 15, defenceman James Watier (9, 2-7-9, 4) and Patrick Gazich (8, 1-7-8, 8).
At the other end of the spectrum, with 52 on the season, the Rapids have scored the fewest goals in the NOJHL.
And their top scorer, forward Gregory Trudeau-Paquet (18, 11-6-17, 10), will not be in the lineup Saturday night as he continues to serve a six-game suspension he picked up for being assessed a penalty for a blind-side hit with injury on Nov. 4.
The Rapids will also be without their second-leading scorer, forward Caleb Rich (15, 9-7-16, 20), who remains with the Halifax Mooseheads, of the QMJHL.
In addition, defenceman Eric Paquette (10, 0-5-5, 11) will also miss the contest as he continues to serve an eight-game suspension he picked up for a hit to the head (repeat offender) infraction in a Nov. 6 game.
The only Rapids who will be in the lineup with more than 10 points on the season are Kaden Hintz (21, 4-12-16, 26), Christian Gaudreau (22, 7-8-15, 4) and Brayden Crowe (18, 1-10-11, 35).
Gagne knows, however, that even offensively challenged teams can fill the back of a net with pucks if you give them enough opportunities.
“They are a well-coached team and they have a good work ethic,” he said.
“You have to be at the top of your game if you are going to beat them. You can’t afford to get lackadaisical, regardless of who you are playing against. If we are not sharp Saturday night, French River will take advantage of it.
“You have to be sharp every game. That has been proven time and again in this league this year. There have been a lot of upsets.”
The Rock have learned, as well, that when you are one of the top teams in the league it is almost like you have a target on your back.
“Every team we play against is more than prepared to play against us now,” Gagne said.
The Rock are hoping to return to playing the kind of hockey that saw them get off to a 14-4-0-0 start this season.
“We had good offence and we had great defence and our goalies were part of our defence,” Gagne said.
“When mistakes were being made 200 feet from our net, or three feet in front of it, we were getting support from everywhere, from the forwards supporting the defence, to the defence supporting the goalies and our goalies supporting our defence.
“To have good defence, you have to have all three elements, goaltending, defence and forwards committed to playing a team game.”
Having played three games in two-and-a-half days, the Rock did not practise on Monday but they have gotten back to the basics this week.
“We have been working on a lot of defensive play,” Gagne said.
“Giving up 20 goals — and I hate that number — in three games, you know we have to modify our program. We have been focusing on defensive zone coverage, trying to make sure we do a solid job back there.”