Rock look to continue regular-season success against Rapids

Blue-liner Kenyon Nyman, shown here defending against French River forward Matthew Campanella during an NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena on Oct. 21, and his Rock teammates will welcome the Rapids to Timmins for the start of their best-of-seven East Division semifinal series on Friday, at 7 p.m. The two teams will also play Game 2 at the McIntyre Arena on Saturday, at 7 p.m. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS jpg, TD

Unlike some East Division opponents, the French River Rapids only visited the McIntyre Arena twice during the 2022-23 campaign.

Thomas Perry
The Daily Press/Postmedia Network

TIMMINS – Unlike some East Division opponents, the French River Rapids only visited the McIntyre Arena twice during the 2022-23 campaign.

So, Rock fans might not be as familiar with the Rock’s East Division semifinal opponents, as they would be the Cochrane Crunch or the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners — the two teams that fell short of the playoffs.

That will begin to change when the Rock host the Rapids in Game 1 of the best-of-seven East Division semifinal series at the McIntyre Arena on Friday, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, at 7 p.m.

Clearly, the Rock (45-8-3-2), the No. 1 seed in the East Division, had a better record than the No. 4 seed Rapids (9-46-2-1).

Head-to-head, the Rock won all four games they played against the Rapids during the regular season, 6-1 in French River on March 11, 8-0 in Timmins on March 5, 7-2 in French River on Dec. 3 and 6-1 in Timmins on Oct. 21.

Heading into Round 1, Rock coach and general manager Brandon Perry is more focused on ensuring his squad is firing on all cylinders than any success they may have had against any opponent during the regular season.

“A lot of what we do here is making sure we are really good at what we do, but obviously you have got to respect your opponent,” he said.

“We will go through the video, put together a playoff package, get to know their systems inside and out, tweak ours, if we have to, to play against it.

“It is just like any other game prep, study your opponent and find out what they like to do, but it will change all series. It will change from Game 1 to Game 2, to Game 3, to Game 4, all the way through.

“We just have to be mentally sharp and be able to make adjustments on the fly.

“If we show up, play hard, play fast, play with a ton of passion and we execute, I like our chances.”

At the same time, the coach is fully aware the Rapids will be doing the same thing as they search to find a way to upset the Rock.

“They are going to watch video on us and they are going to do their best shut us down and take away looks we usually like to get.

“Every detail is important and I am sure we will have to make adjustments as we go, but I like our group, I like where we are at, the way we are playing.

“I am just excited to get going.”

Offensively, the Rock scored 273 goals — second only to the Hearst Lumberjacks (277) — while the Rapids lit the lamp just 145 times.

And no team, in either division, came close to the Rock’s plus-162 goal differential, while the Rapids finished at minus-159.

For the record, the Rapids are the only team in either division to advance to the playoffs with a minus goal differential.

The Rock boast the NOJHL’s only 50-goal scorer in Brady Harroun (57, 50-46-96, 66) and its only 100-point producer in Captain Nicolas Pigeon (58, 26-81-107, 32).

They also have five players — Pigeon, Nolan Ring (54, 26-21-47, 28), Yan Bessette (41, 22-26-48, 29), Lucas Piekarczyk (49, 21-26-47, 25) and Nicholas Frederick (55, 20-35-55, 29) — who hit or exceeded the 20-goal mark.

And Liam Wells (42, 16-13-29, 72) likely would have hit that standard, as well, if injuries and suspension had not limited the number of games he was in the lineup this season.

Few teams have received the offensive contributions the Rock have from their blue-liners, with Kenyon Nyman (58, 11-49-60, 16) leading all NOJHL D-men in points this season.

Only one member of the Rapids, Josh Russell (55, 22-32-54, 52), was able to surpass 20 goals this season, although Matthew Campanella (56, 19-16-35, 61) and Connor Picard (32, 17-6-23, 57) did come close.

Defensively, the Rock allowed just 111 goals this season, best in the NOJHL, while the Rapids surrendered 304, second worst in the league.

The Rock duo of Patrick Boivin (2,119:00, 27-7-2-0, 6, 1.98, .920) and Jacob Brown (1,369:00, 18-1-1-2, 7, 1.49, .925) dominated just about every important goaltending statistic in the NOJHL this season.

Boivin led the league in wins, while Brown was eighth; Brown topped the NOJHL in shutouts, while Boivin was tied for second; Brown had the league’s best goals against average, while Boivin was second; Brown was second in save percentage, while Boivin was sixth.

Brady Dyer (1,398:00, 4-16-1-1, 1, 5.37, .880) has received the lion’s share of starts in net for the Rapids, followed by Ben Gustafson (930:00, 0-18-0-0, 0, 5.10, .880) and Matthew Perdue (900:00, 4-9-1-0, 0, 4.60, .883), but success has eluded all three.

Special teams are always an important factor in the playoffs, so the ability to stay out of the penalty box could be prove important.

During the regular season, the Rock were assessed 559 minutes in penalties, second fewest in the NOJHL, while the 858 minutes the Rapids spent in the sin bin were the most in the league.

The Rock, at 27.5 per cent efficiency, had the NOJHL’s most lethal power play, while the Rapids’ 11.7 per cent mark was the third worst in the league.

On the other side of the puck, the Rock’s 84.5 per cent penalty kill effectiveness was second best in the NOJHL, while the Rapids’ 75.2 per cent success rate was second worst.

Shorthanded goals for and against can be even more important in a short series.

The Rock were even during the regular season, scoring four and allowing four.

Strangely, the Rapids scored eight shorthanded goals, while allowing just five.

While the Rock have been busy on the ice and in the video room this week getting ready for the Rapids, many of the players — including 50-goal man Harroun — have gotten a head start on cultivating playoff beards.

So, who will have the best beard when the players line up for the opening puck drop Friday night?

“Man, I am not too sure, I might have the best one,” Harroun said.

“Christophe Petit has got a good one. There are a couple of other ones, but Chris has got a nice one.

“I am hoping (by Friday night) everyone will have a nice one underway but there are a few guys who struggle with that, so we will have to see.

“We will make it (playoff run) deep enough so they can grow one, for sure.”

Like his coach, Harroun knows the success the Rock enjoyed against the Rapids during the regular season will have no bearing once the puck drops on the playoffs Friday night.

“The playoffs are a seven-game war out there,” he said.

“If you don’t bring your best, you are going to get burned. We are expecting French River to come out hard in every game.

“We will just have to keep playing our game and be hard to play against. If we do that, we will be fine.”

During the final few regular season games, Perry split up the Rock’s top duo of Harroun and Pigeon, perhaps with the idea of making it harder to shut them down once the playoffs begin.

“We are such a tight group and there are zero gaps,” Harroun said, indicating the ease with which they have been able to find chemistry with new linemates.

“It is a smooth transition for us to play with anyone. We have a lot of good players on our team.

“Wherever I slot into the lineup in order to help the team, it is my pleasure.

“If we come at them in waves, they are not going to be able to stop us.”

While Piekarczyk spent the most time on the right side with Pigeon and Harroun this season, the unit continued to roll with either Bessette or Ring in that spot, testament to the flexibility of the Rock’s Top 6.

From a health — and suspension — perspective, the Rock have been dealing with a few issues.

Forward Kaeden McArthur left Sunday afternoon’s game against the Soo Thunderbirds with an upper-body injury and it remains to be seen when he will be ready to return to the ice.

Forward Ethan Pool (hand) is scheduled to get his cast off on Tuesday, but it may take some time before he is ready to return to game action.

“I think the game plan for him is Round 2,” Perry said.

“Hopefully, they will be able to put him a playing cast so he can get on the ice and start skating.”

Forward Liam Wells, remains out of the lineup while completing his 10-game suspension, and won’t be eligible to return to action until Game 3 in French River on Monday.