By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will be looking to return to the win column when they welcome the French River Rapids to the McIntyre Arena Thursday night.
Despite their recent struggles, the Rock still have the third-best winning percentage, .679, in the NOJHL, trailing only the Powassan Voodoos, .887, and the Soo Thunderbirds, .741.
The Rock were only able to manage one victory during a recent five-game stretch that saw them play the Cochrane Crunch and the Voodoos twice each and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners once.
They were able to take two of the four losses to double overtime, to salvage single points in each, while the margin of defeat in the other two contests was two goals.
In an effort to ensure better results against the Rapids Thursday night and the Rayside-Balfour Canadians on Saturday night at the McIntyre Arena, Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne has had his club get back to the basics in practice this week.
“It’s not like we have been playing bad hockey,” he said.
“During the course of the year, teams are always going to have to endure little slumps. It happens. As a coach, you go back and look at the details.
“When we were really playing well and we were on fire, the little details were so automatic for us that it was incredible. We found ways to win.
“Right now, we are still playing well, but some details are not at 100% and it’s costing us a goal here, a goal there. We are not scoring on the power play and we are giving up one or two goals a game. That has been making the difference in the hockey games.
“It is all about the details and when we play against a team, it doesn’t matter if it is French River or Powassan, we are going to to have to look after the details and pay attention.”
All of the top teams in the NOJHL have gone through mini-slumps in one form or another this season and Gagne would much rather have his squad do it now than during the playoffs.
“Adversity can be healthy,” he said.
“When you go through a little slump, life we have been, and it’s not a big slump, the players find out what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. Psychologically, they get prepared for the games. It is all experience and it is all part of the game.”
The Rock have been working hard in practice this week to correct some of the little mistakes that have plagued them in recent games.
“We have been a little bit more focused in practice,” Gagne said.
“We have really been paying attention to the details, because we want to get rid of these tendencies to make little mistakes. It doesn’t matter who we are playing, it’s our game that we have to perfect and that’s what we want to do.”
One ares of the Rock’s game that has been getting a little extra attention this week is their defensive zone coverage.
“Down low in our defensive zone is where the mistakes have been made that have resulted in goal goals against,” Gagne said.
“We have been focusing on it. Man-to-man coverage is very important down low. It’s all about the little details down low, positioning, taking your man and staying with your man. Everybody has an assignment and they need to be accountable.
“That’s one of the things we have been working on this week is being accountable in our defensive zone.”
After leading the NOJHL for much of the season, the Rock — with an efficiency rate of 22.0% — still have the No. 3 power play in the league, trailing only the Voodoos, 23.8%, and the Crunch, 23.2%.
That despite scoring only two power-play goals in 16 opportunities in the month of December.
“We are going to have to get more shots and get more traffic in front of the net,” Gagne said.
“They don’t have to be tick-tac-toe plays or set plays. Sometimes, you have to be nitty gritty and get power-play goals from a foot in front of the net, on a rebound, or a deflection off your foot, or your shin pad, stuff like that.
“That helps to give you that power-play confidence you need. We control the puck well, but sometimes we may be over controlling the puck and not getting any shots on net.
“That’s one area we have to improve upon.”
The Rock’s opponents the next two games, the Rapids (17.7%, tied for seventh) and the Canadians (17.0%, ninth) have both struggled with the man advantage so far this season.
The Rapids rank second-last in the 12-team NOJHL in terms of the penalty kill, with a success rate of just 76.7%, while the Canadians (83.4%, third) have excelled.
At 81.0%, the Rock are seventh-best in terms of the PK.
The Rock have won all four meetings with the Rapids this season — 6-1 on home ice Nov. 19, 4-3 in overtime in French River on Oct. 29, 7-3 in French River on Sept. 24 and 6-3 on home ice Sept. 16 — but the Rock will not be taking them for granted Thursday night.
“Every time we have played them their goaltending has been fantastic,” Gagne said.
“One game I think we had 65 shots against them and goaltending makes a big difference.”
During that game on Oct. 29 Albert Rogers (851:00, 3-9-2-1, 1, 4.30, .905), who now plays for the Rock following a Nov. 17 trade between the two clubs, was almost unbeatable in making 61 saves.
And the Rapids current No. 1 puck stopper Korlan Vader (665:00, 0-11-0-0, 0, 5.15, .900), had a 62-save performance against he Rock back on Sept. 24.
“I am very confident we are going to be prepared for this game on Thursday,” Gagne said.
With 149 goals on the season, the Rock remain the top-scoring team in the NOJHL this season.
The balanced attack has seen regular contributions from forwards such as Rendle (28, 19-19-38, 46), Tyler Romain (28, 20-15-35, 21), Bain Cunningham (28, 9-25-34, 35), Wayne Mathieu (26, 14-15-29, 8), Cory Sprague (28, 16-10-26, 40), Stewart Parnell (26, 5-21-26, 10), Cole Gilligan (28, 14-11-25, 2), Alexandre Brisson (27, 11-13-24, 24), Jacob Shankar (23, 10-14-24, 17) and the recently departed Marcus Blackned (19, 7-15-22, 4).
One of those forwards, Brisson will sit out Thursday night’s contest as he serves a one-game suspension he picked up during Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Voodoos.
His spot in the lineup will be taken by affiliate player Evan Kentish-Stack (1, 0-0-0, 0), of the GNML’s Timmins Majors, who made his NOJHL debut during that contest.
“He practised with us yesterday (Tuesday) and they (the Majors) have a game in Kapuskasing tonight,” Gagne said.
The team’s blue-liners, including Spencer Segui (26, 3-18-21, 24), Jared Hester (28, 8-10-18, 36), Brendan Campbell (24, 2-11-13, 38), Nicholas Hautanen (27, 3-7-10, 28), James Watier (15, 2-8-10, 10), Patrick Gazich (14, 1-9-10, 12) and Grant McClellan (28, 3-2-5, 30), have chipped in offensively, as well.
With 64 goals on the season, the Rapids are the lowest-scoring team in the NOJHL.
The bulk of the Rapids’ offence has come from players such as Christian Gaudreau (27, 7-13-20, 4), Gregory Trudeau-Paquet (21, 13-6-19, 12), Caleb Rich (15, 9-7-16, 20) and Kaden Hintz (22, 4-12-16, 26).
Rich (promotion to the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads) and Hintz (trade to the English River Miners, of the SIJHL) are, of course, no longer with the Rapids.
The Rock have yet to face the Canadians (18-10-2-1), who sit in second place in the NOJHL’s West Division standings, this season.
“Just like when we play the Rapids, our focus will be on a very strong forecheck and playing sound defensive hockey,” Gagne said.
“We are really happy with our defensive corps and if we can shut them down and do most of our work 200 feet from our net a get a solid forecheck going we feel we will be able to make things happen.”
Gagne has not had a chance to see the Canadians play in person this season, but the team will be reviewing a lot of video between Thursday night’s game against the Rapids and the drop of the puck against Rayside-Balfour Saturday night.
“We do know they have a young team,” he said.
“They have a couple of good defencemen who move the puck well and get involved in the offence. They have some great, young goaltenders, as well.”
Up front, the Canadians’ attack is led by Bradey Johnson (31, 11-18-29, 10), Tristan Simm(28, 14-9-23, 15), Kyle Liinamaa (31, 5-16-21, 18), Matthew Neault (30, 9-11-20, 22), Evan Krassey (23, 8-10-18, 49) and Iroquois Falls native Chad Denault (22, 8-9-17, 20), who is currently with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes.
After trading away MacKenzie Savard earlier in the season, the Canadians have relied upon the puck-stopping abilities of Owen Johansson (735:00, 6-4-1-047, 0, 3.84, .885) and Cameron Lamour (472:00, 3-4-0-1, 0, 3.43, .899).
As Rock fans have grown to expect, Gagne was not about to tip his hand as to which of his three goalies would be between the pipes for either Thursday night’s or Saturday night’s contest.
He has stated, however, that Rogers (306:00, 2-2-1-0, 0 3.14, .912, with the Rock) is currently the team’s No. 1 goalie.
Jeff Veitch (539:00, 3-2-1-1, 0, 3.45, .885 overall, 69:00, 0-0-1-0, 0, 5.21, .857 with Rock) and Matthew Nixon (773:00, 8-4-0-0, 0, 3.96, .897) form the other two-thirds of the Rock crease trio.