By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Twas the night before the final game prior to the NOJHL’s annual Christmas break and not a creature was stirring, not even a … mouse?
That will all change, of course, Wednesday night when the Timmins Rock invade the Tim Horton Event Centre in hopes of closing the gap between them and the Cochrane Crunch in the NOJHL East Division standings.
After knocking off the Gold Miners 5-3 at the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex Sunday night, the second-place Crunch (22-9-4-1) sit five points ahead of the Rock (21-8-2-0) heading into the contest.
Regardless of the outcome, the Rock have five games in hand on the Crunch and their post-Christmas schedule will be a little more hectic than their rival’s.
The Crunch have won three of the four meetings of the two teams so far this season, including a 7-5 decision the last time the Rock visited the Tim Horton Event Centre on Dec. 2.
After jumping out to a 1-0 lead on a Wayne Mathieu goal, the Rock continually found themselves having to play catch-up hockey in that contest.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne isn’t sure why his squad has had so much difficulty with the Crunch this season.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said.
“The one game, we had exerted ourselves the night before during spinning class and we had no energy whatsoever. The second game, we gave up four-straight goals and fell behind the 8-ball. Then, the last game, was a high-scoring contest. There was no defensive play on either side and there was no goaltending.”
Despite those struggles, the Rock will be a confident group when they take to the ice at the Tim Horton Event Centre Wednesday night.
“The way we have been playing hockey as of late, it would be nice to go in there and play our game,” Gagne said.
“We do get lots of chances when we play against them, but we seem to open it up a little bit too much and take risks. We are going to have to tighten up lots defensively. We know we are going to get our chances offensively against them.”
The key for the Rock Wednesday night will be to be patient.
“All we have to do is play the way we have been playing during the past couple of games,” Gagne said.
“Our forecheck has been great and our defensive zone coverage has been great. We have been giving the opposition a lot of shots, but nothing dangerous from inside the house.
“Cochrane shoots from everywhere and they consider they have outplayed the opposition when they outshoot them. We won’t be worried about that. We will just worry about taking care of the rebounds.”
Albert Rogers (494:00, 5-2-1-0, 0, 2.43, .929), who has been outstanding in the Rock net since being acquired from the French River Rapids, struggled during his start at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Dec. 2, although he did not get a lot of help from his defence.
“The last game he played there, he was average,” Gagne said.
“Other than that game, he has been stellar for us. He has been incredible every other game he has played for us.
“We say offence is important, defence is important, goaltending is important, but it is a combination. We need to put it all together.”
Even though the Rock have played the fewest number of games in the NOJHL this season (31, tied with the French River Rapids), they continue to lead the league in goals scored, with 166.
The Rock are capable of rolling out three lines — captain Jordan Rendle (31, 21-20-41, 48), with Wayne Mathieu (29, 14-16-30, 14) and Cory Sprague (31, 16-12-28, 44); Tyler Romain (31, 22-20-42, 25), with Bain Cunningham (31, 12-28-40, 35) and Jacob Shankar (26, 13-17-30, 17); and Stewart Parnell (29, 5-24-29, 12), with Cole Gilligan (31, 15-13-28, 2) and Alexandre Brisson (29, 12-14-26, 24), that can put the puck in the net.
Still, the Rock do not want to find themselves in a run-and-gun game against the Crunch, one of the few teams in the NOJHL capable of matching them goal for goal.
With a lineup that already featured Braedan Cross (34, 28-31-59, 22), Brandon McReynolds (34, 18-26-44, 22), Konnar Dechaine (34, 23-16-39, 22) and Kyle Herbster (36, 8-13-21, 16), the Crunch bolstered their attack prior to the Dec. 1 trade deadline by adding Nate Viberg (30, 15-20-35, 16) from the Espanola Express and Justin Hess (8, 4-6-10, 12) from the Orangeville Flyers, of the OJHL.
Another key addition, forward Shane Woolsey (9, 5-2-7, 4), who was acquired from the Elliot Lake Wildcats, remains out of the lineup with a lower-body injury and will not make his Crunch debut until the new year.
Wednesday’s contest might be decided by the play of the teams’ blue-line corps.
Both the Rock and the Crunch are dealing with key injuries to veteran D-men heading into the contest.
The Rock will be missing the services of Jared Hester (28, 8-10-18, 36) who remains out with an upper-body injury.
In addition, Spencer Segui (29, 4-19-23, 26), who suffered a serious facial injury during Saturday night’s 3-2 double overtime victory over the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners, will likely be a game-time decision.
“We are going to see if he can practise with a cage on,” Gagne said.
That could leave the Rock with just five healthy blue-liners — Patrick Gazich (17, 3-11-14, 14), Brendan Campbell (27, 2-11-13, 46), Nicholas Hautanen (30, 4-8-12, 30), James Watier (18, 2-9-11, 10) and Grant McClellan (31, 3-2-5, 30) — heading into the contest.
“We will be OK with five D if Spencer can’t play,” Gagne said.
“During the OT in the last game we played, we moved Bain Cunningham back to defence. Bain played defence pretty much his whole bantam and midget career. He fits in quite well back there and he is comfortable.”
At 6-3 and 206 pounds, the 19-year-old Barrie native has the size and skating ability required to be a solid blue-liner.
The Crunch, meanwhile, will be without the services of veteran blue-liner Zack Anderson (31, 0-12-12, 24), who suffered an upper-body injury during Saturday night’s 7-2 loss to the Eskis in Iroquois Falls.
“He will be out of the lineup now until we get back on Jan. 6,” said Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard.
“Zach is a player who brings a lot of speed to our lineup. He has had a bit of an up-and-down year. Whenever he plays with intensity, aggression and urgency, he plays well. When he doesn’t, he struggles.”
The loss of Anderson leaves the Crunch with six healthy blue-liners in Connor Lovie (36, 6-14-20, 36), Joseph Thielen (17,4-14-18, 12), Lucas Robinson (35, 2-10-12, 20), Taylor Armbruster (33, 2-7-9, 32), Colin Boudreau (12, 1-2-3, 16) and Braden King (27, 0-3-3, 32).
“We just have to work on our defensive play and cut down on the pinching,” Leonard said.
“If we can stop the pinching in our back end, we are going to be a very hard team to beat.”
Leonard feels the Crunch match up well against the Rock, a team he feels is very similar to his own.
“I just think it has been our speed,” he said.
“I think we have one of the quickest teams in the league. We have a lot of speed and we are just learning how to use it to our advantage. We have seen some really good things in the last couple of weeks.”
Even though the Crunch enter play Wednesday night with a five-point advantage in the standings, Leonard knows it is important for his team to make the most of its head-to-head match-ups with Timmins given the visitors have five games in hand.
“If we win, that puts us two more points ahead of them in the standings and that’s two more points they will need to catch us,” he said.
“Head-to-head meetings could be important if we wind up tied heading into the playoffs. Last year, we wound up tied with Powassan for first but we wound up finishing ahead of them because of our head-to-head record.
“Our goal is to stay ahead of Timmins and, at the very least, finish second in our division. If we can catch Powassan (currently on a 23-game winning streak and 12 points ahead of the Crunch in the standings) that would be great.
“Some of that will be in our own hands. We have two more home games against Powassan and one more on the road against them. We really don’t know what is going to happen in the new year. They have some tough games coming up.