By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Rock win, Rock win, R-o-o-o-c-k w-i-i-i-n!
For the first time in six games, Rock fans can savour the taste of victory following their heroes’ 8-3 win over the French River Rapids at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
Tristan Salesse, who had the Rock’s lone goal during Thursday night’s 7-1 loss to the Gold Miners in Kirkland Lake, scored three goals to power the home side to victory Saturday night, while Andrew Green chipped in with a pair of goals.
“We just had to get back to how we normally play,” Salesse said, describing what the Rock did right to snap their five-game losing streak.
“Lately, we had been in a little slump and trying to do too much. Tonight, we just did the little things we are supposed to do and things worked out a lot better.”
Salesse whose 31 goals led the Rock heading into the game was constantly buzzing around the Rapids net all night long.
“I have gotten quite a few points this year and whenever I bring to the table what I have, it makes everybody else feel like they can do more,” he said.
With Aaron Kerr serving the second game of his three-game suspension, Ryan Theriault rejoined Salesse and Landen Matechuk on the Rock’s top line.
“It was pretty good to play with Ryan again,” Salesse said.
“At the start of the season, we were together and we played pretty well together. We have good chemistry.”
The Rock jumped out to a 1-0 lead just 1:34 into the first period when Zachary Kercz scored his 26th goal of the season but the lead didn’t last long, as Brennan Kelly scored his 12th goal of the season less than three minutes later to tie things up at 1-1 for the Rapids.
Salesse’s first goal of the game and 32nd on the season put the Rock back in front with just under six minutes to play in the opening period.
The Rock then increased their lead to 3-1 with just 33.02 seconds remaining on the clock as defenceman Joe Olson scored his fourth goal of the season on a play that drew the ire of Rapids goalie Zach Mills and the team’s entire bench.
Mills was knocked into his net by a sliding Kercz before Olson’s shot, but referees Christian Gratton and Evan McCrory ruled that Kercz had been knocked off his skates and into the Rapids puck stopper.
The late goal didn’t seem to bother the young Rapids squad, however, as 16-year-old Caleb Rich — who had three goals and three assists when the Rapids knocked off the Rock 10-6 in French River on Feb. 20 — scored his 16th goal of the season just 23 seconds into the second period to pull the visitors back to within one goal.
The Rock responded quickly, however, as Salesse scored his second goal of the game and 33rd on the season — the game-winner — just 1:03 later to put the home side up 4-2.
That goal seemed to take a lot of the fight out of the Rapids and the Rock scored two more second-period goals to build a 6-2 lead heading into the final 20 minutes of play.
Bain Cunningham scored his 25th goal of the season at the 5:33 mark and then Green netted his fourth goal of the season with just 50.92 seconds remaining on the clock.
Salesse completed his hat-trick by potting his 34th goal of the season early in the third period to increase the Rock advantage to 7-2.
Then Green added his second goal of the game and fifth of the season midway through the final frame.
The Rapids closed out the scoring with just 1:58 remaining on the clock, as Rich netted his second goal of the night and 17 of the season, on the power play.
Rock goalie Logan Ferrington stopped 31 of the 34 shots he faced to pick up the win, while Mills turned aside 37 of the 45 shots he faced.
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne was happy to see his team finally come up with a solid effort, with the playoffs so close at hand.
“We were due to play some good hockey and I thought we did play some good hockey tonight,” he said.
“We gave up a couple of two-on-ones in the first period, but we were relentless tonight. We never slacked off a bit. We just kept going at them.
“It was nice to see Salesse get the hat-trick and young Green get a couple of goals.
We rolled four lines and even our fourth line, with (Jace) Soroko and (Cole) Gilligan and the centres we rotated with them, played really well. We had the cycling really down pat tonight, too.”
It took some doing, but it looks like the funk that saw the Rock lose five-straight games and six out of seven might finally be over.
“We had three meetings in the last four or five days and they were not crisis meetings, but we had to put everything on the table and try to sacrifice whatever we could to get out of this little funk.
“There was a lot less thinking instead of reacting tonight. It was much better.”
With one regular-season left before the start of the playoffs, Gagne hopes the Rock can build from Saturday night’s victory.
“Kirkland Lake is coming in (Wednesday) and I would like to see us play some solid hockey,” he said.
“We play to win every game, but we want to make sure we play to our potential. If we can play well against them, like we did tonight, then hopefully we can continue to play well when we start the playoffs on March 12.
With eight points against the Rock in the past two games, Rich continued to impress Gagne Saturday night.
“They have a lot of really nice looking young players and he is one of them,” he said.
“These kids already have one year of experience, so next year — if they are back — you know they are going to be playing some great hockey.”
Rapids coach Dan Tremblay, who took over for Moe Mantha (now coach of the Saginaw Spirit, of the OHL, knows his team has a lot of growing to do but also that it has a great deal of potential.
“I have told the kids to just be positive all the time and keep working hard,” he said.
“We are looking to keep everything positive and then try to build on that next season.”
With young players like Rich, the Rapids appear to have some nice building blocks for the future.
“Rich is a really nice kid,” Tremblay said. “He is a very good two-way player, but he is especially good on offence. He works hard. Every game and every practice, he works hard. For a 16 year old, that’s a positive note for next year, if he comes back with us.”
The 5-11, 175-pound Callandar native will likely be on the radar of a number of Ontario Hockey League teams by the time the 2016-17 season rolls around.
NOJHL Notes — The three stars of the game were Salesse, Green and Rich … The Rock did not dress defenceman Andrew Castagna (lower-body injury), forward Kyle Levis (healthy scratch), Kerr (suspension) and goalie Devon Debastos (healthy scratch) … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 508 … Elsewhere in the NOJHL Saturday night the Gold Miners thumped the Eskis 7-1 in Iroquois Falls, the Crunch defeated the Beavers 5-1 in Blind River to secure top spot in the East Division and end the Beavers’ playoff hopes, the Voodoos edged the Rayside-Balfour Canadians 5-4 in Powassan and the Thunderbirds defeated the Soo Eagles 4-1 in Sault Ste. Marie … The Rock will return to action when they host the Gold Miners at the McIntyre Arena Wednesday night in the final regular-season game for both squads.