By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Espanola Express are likely breathing a sigh of relief that they will not have to face back-up goalie Matthew Nixon when they take on the Rock at the McIntyre Arena Friday night.
Nixon (680:00, 6-5-0-0, 0, 3.88, .898) has been in net for all three of the encounters between the NOJHL squads so far this season and the Express have come out on the losing end of all of them — 6-2 in Espanola on Sept. 20, 4-2 in Timmins on Oct. 16 and 5-1 in Espanola on Oct. 30.
At this point, the one thing that is clear about the Rock goaltending situation is Nixon, who is out with a lower-body injury, will not be in uniform.
Nixon has not played since giving up four goals in a 5-1 loss to the Voodoos in Powassan on Nov. 13.
An attempt to return from the injury lasted just one practice and it is expected he will be out of the lineup for at least another three weeks.
Meanwhile, Rock starting goalie Logan Ferrington (890:00, 9-5-1-0, 0, 3.57, .911), who had also missed significant time with a lower-body injury earlier in the season, was injured during the first period of Sunday’s 6-4 home-ice loss to the Soo Eagles.
After finishing the period, the 20-year-old London native was unable to return for the start of the second period.
Ferrington missed practice on Monday and Tuesday, but expressed optimism he would be able to return to the ice on Wednesday.
Affiliate goalie Bradley Dobson (98:50, 1-1-0-0, 1, 1.82, .949), who plays regularly with the Timmins Majors, of the GNML, came on to finish up Sunday’s contest.
The Rock announced following Sunday’s game the team has signed 19-year-old Timmins native Devon Debastos, who spent the 2014-15 season with the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (995:01, 11-7-0-0, 3, 3.26, .898).
“I thought I had a good first year (of Junior ‘A’ hockey) last year with the Gold Miners,” Debastos said.
“Obviously, things could have gone a bit better, but I got a good experience from it playing on a good team there. I am looking to improve upon my stats from last year and hopefully give the Rock a chance to win.”
While with the Gold Miners, Debastos had an opportunity to work with a pair of veteran goalies — Kenny Fitzgerald and Josh Erickson.
“Obviously, I was able to learn from their play and stuff like that but I was also able to learn from their composure and their maturity,” he said.
“I think I have taken that on and this year I feel a lot more mature and a lot more confident in my game.”
Even though Debastos played in the NOJHL last season, the league has changed significantly in terms of both players and teams.
“I am not looking forward to facing any shooters in particular, but I am looking forward to playing against some of the powerhouse teams like Cochrane, the Soo and even Kirkland Lake again,” he said.
“I don’t usually focus on too many players. When I play, I like to just take things one shot at a time.”
What can fans who might not remember Debastos from his days with the Majors or his visits to the city with the Gold Miners to take on the Abitibi Eskimos expect to see from the 6-0, 160-pound goalie?
“I like to be pretty calm and composed back there,” he said.
“I like to become aggressive when the players get closer in to the net, but I am a butterfly-style goalie. I like to try and model my play after (Montreal Canadiens goalie) Carey Price.”
Debastos has had a chance to chat goaltending with both Ferrington and Nixon.
“They both seem like pretty nice guys,” he said.
“It seems there is a little curse going around with injuries. Hopefully, it isn’t catching.”
Debastos has been working hard in practice to ensure he is ready if he gets the call this weekend.
“I haven’t played in this league since last year,” he said.
“I have played in a couple of different leagues so far this year. Each league has had its own style. Some are more physical. Some are more skilled.
“I am just trying to get used to the shots and the speed because everything is a bit different here.”
The Gold Miners traded Debastos to the Flin Flon Bombers, of the SJHL, but he did not see any regular-season game action with the squad and eventually made his way to the Yarmouth Mariners (97:08, 0-2-0-0, 0, 7.42, .780), of the MHL.
“Our team wasn’t the best, but I gave them a chance to win,” Debastos said.
“The out-of-league trade deadline was coming up and our coach was talking to Timmins, but things didn’t really work out fast enough. The trade deadline came and the coach said he would release me so I could come to Timmins.”
Debastos is familiar with a number of current Rock players.
“I know both the Kerr boys, (defenceman) Ryan and (forward) Aaron, and I know (Nick) Hautanen, Alexandre Brisson and Wayne Mathieu,” he said.
“I played with all of them, so it is good to come into the dressing room and see some familiar faces. It is making the transition a lot easier. So far, all the guys on the team seem pretty cool.”
Playing closer to home is bound to make Debastos’ family a lot happier.
“They are really pleased because I hadn’t seen them in a couple of months,” he said.
“I know they will be happy to get to see me play and I know a lot of friends will be excited, as well.”
It remains to be seen which goalie tandem — Ferrington backed up by Debastos, Debastos backed up by Ferrington, Dobson backed up by Ferrington, Ferrington backed up by Dobson, Dobson backed up by Debastos, or Debastos backed up by Dobson — the Rock will employ Friday night against the Express and Saturday night against the Crunch.
Only coach and general manager Paul Gagne, and his staff, know for sure and they are not going to tip their hand before game time.
The Express have not won in six games, but Gagne realizes they are a much better team than their 5-21-1-0 record would indicate.
“Pretty much every team in the league has some new personnel in the lineup,” he said.
“They have made a lot of changes since the first couple of games we played against them. Now, they are competing every game. They might not have the best offensive team, but they compete and if you compete and have a hot goaltender, anything can happen.”
Goalie Kevin Labelle (466:00, 1-7-0-0, 1, 3.86 , .910) has just one victory in eight starts since being picked up in a trade with the Rayside-Balfour Canadians but he has lowered his goals against average and improved his saves percentage since the transaction.
At 6-5 and 207 pounds, the 18 year old fills up a big portion of the Express net.
“We are going to have to have all four of our lines rolling and we are going to have to compete hard,” Gagne said.
“Labelle has been standing on his head. He is facing 50 shots a game and sometimes more. He has been keeping his team in there.
“We are going to have to capitalize on our chances and wear them down.”
After doing battle with the Express Friday night, the Rock will host the Cochrane Crunch at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
The Crunch, with a record of 22-5-1-2 lead the NOJHL’s East Division, but the fourth-place Rock (16-11-0-1) have been their Kryptonite so far this season — winning both regular-season contests, 6-5 in Timmins and 4-3 in Cochrane, as well as a pair of exhibition contests.
“We are lucky to have a good record against them, but the difference has been goaltending,” Gagne said.
“Every time we have played them, Ferrington has just stood on his head and played like the goalie we know he is.
“We have played some great hockey and we have capitalized on our chances.
“That’s how you win hockey games.”
Game time for both Friday and Saturday’s contests at the McIntyre Arena is 7:30 p.m.