By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will be looking to extend their winning streak to three games when they host the Soo Thunderbirds at the McIntyre Arena Sunday afternoon.
The game will conclude a three-game road trip for the undefeated Thunderbirds (5-0-0-0) , who took on the Crunch in Cochrane Friday night and will face off against the Eskimos in Iroquois Falls Saturday night.
The Rock (3-3-0-1), meanwhile, are riding high after Wednesday night’s 8-1 win over the Eskimos on home ice and last Sunday’s 6-2 win over the Express in Espanola.
“I think we just have to continue playing the same way we have been,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We have been putting a lot of pressure on teams and our forecheck has been great. Defensively, obviously, we have not been giving up too many goals and that’s a bonus.
“The one thing we have to be careful with is our penalties. They are deadly on the power play. They have a lot of talent, so we have to be disciplined in that area.
“Other than that, we just have to play the way we have been playing. It has been great hockey and we have been enjoying it right now. We are having fun.”
Defenceman Caleb Boman (4, 2-3-5, 4) leads the Thunderbirds with two power-play goals, but it was an extra-strength goal by forward Matthew Mitchell (5, 1-1-2, 10) with 15 seconds remaining in regulation that drove a dagger into the hearts of the Rock when they dropped a 4-3 decision in Sault Ste. Marie on Sept. 18.
The Rock have revamped their roster since that loss, adding forward Ryan Theriault (1, 2-1-3, 2) in a trade with the Whitby Fury, of the OJHL, and defenceman Joe Olson (1, 0-1-1, 2), who was reacquired from the Steinbach Pistons, of the MJHL.
“Ryan came in and he wasn’t even playing with instinct (Wednesday night against the Eskimos),” Gagne said.
“He was trying to read the play, what we were doing, our set plays, parts of our program, and he was a great addition.
“He scored a couple of goals and he has a great shot. He has good size and he is a great skater. It helps out our first line and it reinforces our third line.”
With Theriault playing the right side on the top line with left winger Tristan Salesse (7, 7-6-13, 2) and centre Zachary Kercz (7, 5-7-12, 8), Mike Norris (7, 5-4-9, 12) has moved down to centre the Rock’s third line.
“With Norris on the third line, it adds our offence, if the third line can throw in a goal hear and there, and improves our penalty killing,” Gagne said.
One of the players who has seen time on both the third line and the fourth line this season is forward Tylyer Romain (7, 1-3-4, 2), a Timmins native who notched his first goal of the season during Wednesday night’s victory.
“It felt good to get the monkey off my back, it feels good,” he said.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support of my linemates, though. They got a nice shot on net and I was lucky enough to pop in the rebound.”
Romain is among a group of five or six players who rotate through the third and fourth lines, playing a 200-foot game that stresses defence-first hockey and also sees them spend time killing penalties.
“Being small guys, we protect the puck well down low,” he said.
“We try to create a good cycle out there, which helps out.”
At 5-6 and 160 pounds, Romain is far from the biggest player on the Rock roster.
“Speed is a big factor in my game and having a low centre of gravity helps me to protect the puck,” he said.
What does Romain think the Rock will have to do well Sunday to ensure their current winning streak continues?
“We just have to stick to our program,” Romain said.
“We had a really good game when we were down there, especially considering the long bus ride before it, and we made a statement. As long as we play our systems and do what Paul asks, I think we will be all right.”
Like his coach, Romain feels the Rock will have to stay out of the penalty box Sunday against the Thunderbirds.
“Their power play is very strong and they are very quick,” he said.
“They are a hard forechecking team, but I think if we keep the puck in their zone and cycle down low we can beat them.”
The Rock have deleted a couple of players from their roster this week, as they are looking to trade defencemen Justin Mendoza (4, 0-3-3, 2) and Braxton Davis (5, 0-0-0, 2).
The Thunderbirds have made a number of changes to the team that won the NOJHL championship in 2014-15, but they have not missed a beat.
Gagne said: “They have a solid team. They have three good lines, with a sniper on every line, and that makes them difficult to play against.
“Their D play really tough defensively and they move the puck if they get in trouble. They use the plexiglass. They take the man every time.
“You know when you play against the Soo you have to limit your mistakes because they don’t make too many.”
Gagne does not plan to do anything different in practice to get ready for the Soo, preferring to focus on what his team needs to do to succeed instead of any strengths or weaknesses his opponent may or may not have.
“We have to take care of our house, we have to take care of our players,” he said.
“We have to make sure we don’t have any passengers and make sure we are on top of our game.
“It doesn’t really matter who you are playing against, if it’s the Soo or one of the bottom teams, you have to bring your ‘A’ game.”
The status of defenceman Ryan Kerr (upper-body injury) and forward Cole Gilligan (upper-body injury) for Sunday afternoon’s game remains up in the air.
Gagne said: “We will have to wait to see if they will be in the lineup, or not. At this point in the season, if they are not 100% it is not worth taking a chance. We have some more time off ahead of us, so why push it for one game?”
Defenceman Tyler Somers, who has yet to play this season as he recovers from off-season surgery, remains out of action until he receives clearance to play from an orthopaedic specialist.
Game time for Sunday’s contest is 2 p.m.
NOJHL NOTES — The Rayside Balfour Canadians have traded forward Gabriel Rheault (3, 0-1-1, 0), a New Liskeard native, to the Ayr Centennials, of the MWJCHL … The Kirkland Lake Gold Miners have traded defenceman Justin Phillips (3, 1-0-1, 2) to the Blind River Beavers and defenceman Kyle Patterson (4, 0-0-0, 0) to the Rayside-Balfour Canadians … The Powassan Voodoos have traded defenceman Nolan Smith (2, 0-1-1, 0) to the Cambridge Winterhawks, of the GOJHL … Defenceman Dakotah Woods, a 17-year-old Chapleau native who played for the Elliot Lake Wildcats in 2014-15 (48, 0-3-3, 26), has signed with the Québec Remparts, of the QMJHL.