By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will be looking continue their climb up the NOJHL East Division standings this weekend.
Friday night, the they will travel to Iroquois Falls in hopes of recording their fourth-straight win over the Eskis before welcoming the Espanola Express for their only visit to the McIntyre Arena this season on Saturday night.
Heading into the weekend, the Rock sport a record of 12-4-0-0, good for third place in the NOJHL East Division standings.
They trail the first-place Powassan Voodoos (14-3-1-0) by five points and the second-place Cochrane Crunch (12-2-3-1) by four points.
The Rock have a pair of games in hand on both of those clubs and three in hand on the fourth-place Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (8-8-2-1), who sit five points behind Timmins.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne is naturally pleased with his squad’s strong start, but knows they still have a lot of hard work ahead of them before they accomplish anything truly worth celebrating.
“So far, so good,” he said.
“I like the progress we have made. We have brought in a couple of more defencemen (James Watier and Patrick Gazich) in the past couple of weeks and that has certainly helped out.
“Overall, our players have been playing well. The offence is there and even our goals against is pretty good, so it is certainly good to be in this position right now, but as a coach you are always trying to perfect your club and you always want to get better.
“Our players feel the same way, as well. There is always room for improvement.”
While the Rock practice for an hour-and-a-half five days a week, Gagne feels an off-ice activity has also contributed to the team’s strong start to the 2016-17 campaign.
“Every Tuesday, we do spinning class as a group at Discovery Fitness with Kate Durst,” he said.
“It really makes a difference with our cardio, our legs and our power. The players work really hard. It really helps them with that second and third effort. Even mentally, they are not as fatigued at the end of the games.
“I really believe in conditioning, even off the ice.”
Offensively, the Rock are tied with the Crunch for the most goals (84) scored in the NOJHL heading into the weekend, although Timmins has played two fewer games at this point in the campaign.
Defensively, the Rock are tied with the Soo Thunderbirds for the second-fewest goals (53) allowed to this point in the season, trailing only the Voodoos, who have surrendered just 40 goals.
And only the Voodoos (39) have a higher goals for/against ratio than the Rock (31).
One of the keys to the Rock’s early-season success has been their play on special teams.
Heading into the weekend, with an efficiency rate of 23.5%, the Rock have the No. 1 power play in the NOJHL.
Tyler Romain (16, 10-9-19, 11) leads the team with four power-play goals, followed by captain Jordan Rendle (16, 12-11-23, 32) and Cory Sprague (16, 8-6-14, 22), who each have three on the year.
Jacob Shankar (15, 7-8-15, 12), Bain Cunningham (16, 5-13-18, 21), Cole Gilligan (16, 5-8-13, 0) and defenceman Jared Hester (16, 6-9-15, 20).
“Our guys have been working really hard to get those power-play opportunities,” Gagne said.
“You have to outwork your opponents and be on the puck first. That’s how you make other teams take penalties.
“Then, we have been working on the power play in practice. And we have the personnel, too, which is a bonus. Our first two lines get an equal amount of time on the power play. That is one area of our game where they really compete against each other.”
With a efficiency of 82.1%, the Rock currently rank eighth in the NOJHL on the penalty kill, but that number has been on the rise over the past couple of games, in part because the team has reduced the number of “stupid” penalties it has been taking.
“In that department, we have been better of late,” Gagne said.
“During the first eight games, or so, I think it was getting a little ridiculous, with our undisciplined play.”
As a team that relies on a relentless, aggressive forecheck, Rock players have to walk a fine line that can sometimes get a little blurry.
“When you are on the puck and creating a lot of back pressure on the puck carrier, sooner or later, you are going to get penalties, but it’s the unnecessary penalties 200 feet from our net … the hooking, the slashing … that I don’t like,” Gagne said.
“We have made progress in that area and our penalty killing has been getting better. There is an old saying: ‘If you are going to take stupid penalties, you are going to pay the price.’ A lot of times if you take a good penalty, you will kill it off.
“Our most consistent penalty killers this year have been the guys on our third line, Gilligan, (Alexandre) Brisson and (Stewart) Parnell, as well as guys like (Nicholas) Hway and (Tyler) Planetta. And, of course, we still use (Wayne) Mathieu a lot, even Sprague and Rendle are out there a lot.”
Strong goaltending, of course, is a key to any successful penalty kill and the Rock have been getting consistent puck stopping from both Caleb Barris (548:00, 8-1-0-0, 0, 3.07, .910) and Matthew Nixon (421:00, 4-3-0-0, 0, 3.56, .911).
“This past weekend (in Powassan and French River), our goalies were like a fifth man out there on the ice,” Gagne said.
“We try to limit the other team to low-percentage shots and then the goalies have to take care of the shot and make sure there are no rebounds. It is always a bonus when you get strong goaltending on the PK.”
Regardless of the record of opposing teams, Gagne never likes to take any team for granted and that will be especially true this weekend.
The Rock have won all three of their games against the Eskis (7-12-0-0) so far this season — 6-2 in Iroquois Falls on Oct. 5, 7-5 at the Showcase in Sudbury on Oct. 12 and 5-2 at the McIntyre Arena on Oct. 26 — but Iroquois Falls has a record of 6-4-0-0 in its past 10 games. That record, of course, would be even better if the Eskis had been able to beat the Rock in either of those last two contests.
“We can’t go in there thinking all we have to do is show up to get the two points,” Gagne said.
“We have to go in there and outwork them, outsmart them and outscore them. They boys will be ready for this game.
“The Eskis have been playing better of late and they added a 20 year old (Ryan Gruszka, 2, 2-0-2, 4) who had a big game for them against Kirkland Lake. He has experience playing in this league with the Crunch (2014-15, 12, 3-4-7, 0).
“Adding a couple of players here and there adds to their recipe.”
Even without Gruszka, the Eskis had a pretty impressive offence, centred around forwards Dillan Bruce (19, 12-14-26, 16), Shadow Reuben (19, 12-13-25, 4), captain David Osborne (15, 11-12-23, 19), Blake Holowaty (17, 6-11-17, 10) and Jack Speer (19, 6-7-13, 17), as well as defenceman Phil Caron (19, 2-16-18, 4).
After three-straight road games, the Rock will finally return to the friendly confines of the McIntyre Arena Saturday night when they host the Express (5-13-0-1).
Playing their second game in two nights, Gagne knows the Rock can not afford to let their guard down against the visitors, either.
“They are a team we have not played against this year and they might not have a great record, the majority of the games they have played, they have been in the game,” Gagne said.
“Again, they are just missing a couple of little ingredients, a couple of skilled players who can make a difference in scoring.
“We are going to have to employ the same philosophy as the game against the Eskis. We are going to have to be prepared for these guys.”
The Express do not have as many offensive weapons as the Rock, especially after trading Dominik Lavergne (14, 8-8-16, 8) to the Valley Jr. Wildcats, of the MHL, but they do get regular contributions from Patrick Smith (19, 3-19-22, 12), Nate Viberg (16, 11-8-19, 8), Aaron Roschinsky (14, 7-4-11, 37), Riley Smith (19, 5-6-11, 6) and MacKenzie Aiken (19, 6-1-7, 30).
The Rock are totally healthy heading into the pair of weekend games, and have no suspension concerns, either.
The only roster move saw the Rock part ways with defenceman Colin Esperon (1, 0-0-, 0).
“With the arrival of the two new defencemen, unfortunately there was no room for him,” Gagne said.
“He is a good kid, but we are going in a different direction.”
NOJHL NOTES — The NOJHL has announced the names of the winners of Gongshow Gear awards for October. Soo Eagles forward Chris Murphy is the Player of the Month. Honourable mention went to Voodoos forward Gary Mantz and Eskis forward Dillan Bruce. The Eskis’ Phil Caron, a 16-year-old native of Timmins, is the Defenceman of the Month, for the second-straight month. Honourable mention goes to Dayton Murray, of the Voodoos, and the Rock’s Hester. The Goaltender of the Month is the Voodoos Nicholas Campbell. Honourable mention goes to the Rock’s Barris and Myles Hektor, of the Blind River Beavers. The Rookie of the Month is Rayside-Balfour Canadians forward Bradey Johnson. Honourable mention went to Marcus Blackned, of the Rock, and Hektor … The Crunch have traded forward Tyler Falk to the Elliot Lake Wildcats … Cochrane has also traded forward Cooper Schroder to the Beavers in exchange for forward Haiden Karnick … The Express have acquired goalie Taylor Unruh from the Dryden Ice Dogs, of the SIJHL … the Gold Miners have acquired defenceman Liam Watson from Markham Royals, of the OJHL … the Rayside-Balfour Canadians have acquired forward Kristopher Hamlin from the Thunder Bay North Stars, of the SIJHL, in exchange for forward MacKenzie MacMillan.