By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Asked to name the top offensive team in the NOJHL, the majority of fans would likely choose the Cochrane Crunch.
After all, the only NOJHL team that has yet to taste defeat in regulation features the Top 2 players in the scoring race — forwards Braedan Cross (13, 14-16-30, 8) and Brandon McReynolds (13, 12-11-23, 6).
And Konnar Dechaine (13, 11-6-17, 14), who sits in ninth place, gives the Crunch three skaters in the Top 10 — more than any other team in the league.
With 70 goals in their first 13 games, however, the Crunch sit second in scoring, trailing the Timmins Rock, who have found the back of the net 72 times in their first 12 games of the season.
After getting off to a bit of a slow start, captain Jordan Rendle (12, 10-8-18, 30) has been red hot as of late and now finds himself in seventh place in the NOJHL scoring race.
He is the only member of the Rock in the NOJHL’s Top 10, but two of his teammates —forwards Marcus Blackned (10, 6-10-16, 4) and Bain Cunningham (12, 4-12-16, 16) are in the Top 20, each tied for 12th spot.
In recent games, the Rock have split up Rendle and Cunningham, who had been together since early in the 2015 training camp.
Cunningham’s spot on the Rock’s top line with Rendle and Cory Sprague (12, 7-5-12, 12) has been taken by Wayne Mathieu (10, 8-7-15, 0).
Mathieu, one of the team’s fiercest competitors, had been centring the second unit, but earned a promotion to top line.
The Rock have plenty of secondary scoring, with Tyler Romain (12, 7-8-15, 6), Jacob Shankar (11, 7-6-13, 10), Cole Gilligan (12, 5-8-13, 0), defenceman Jared Hester (12, 6-6-12, 14) and Stewart Parnell (10, 2-8-10, 0) all averaging at least a point a game so far this season.
And the surging Alexandre Brisson (11, 5-3-8, 8), who has scored three goals in his past two games, is not far off that pace, as well.
The NOJHL West Division-leading Soo Thunderbirds (68 goals), who have played four more games than the Rock and three more than the Crunch are the only other team in the league with more than 60 goals at this point in the season.
Currently, the Rock find themselves third in the East Division standings, one point behind the Powassan Voodoos who have played one more game than Timmins.
Over all, with 18 points on the season, they sit in fifth place, but they have the second-best winning percentage in the league at .750.
Only the Crunch, at .923, have a better record.
The Rock’s early season success is not just the result of a high-powered offence — keyed by an aggressive forecheck.
Only the Voodoos, with 31, and the Crunch, with 37, have allowed fewer goals so far this season than the Rock, with 41.
Rock netminters Caleb Barris (486:00, 7-1-0-0, 0, 3.08, .909) and Matthew Nixon (240:00, 2-2-0-0, 4.00, .910) have both been good this season, but they sit eighth and 13th in the league respectively.
MacKenzie Savard (681:00, 9-2-1-0, 2, 2.11, .944), of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, and Nate McDonald (467:00, 5-2-1-0, 2, 2.19, .918) have been the Top 2 puck stoppers in the NOJHL so far this season.
The Rock’s five-man defensive corps has not gotten the attention it deserves during the early part of the campaign.
Hester has gone from being a power-play specialist during the 2015-16 season to becoming a dependable defender Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne can use in any situation.
Spencer Segui (12, 1-8-9, 10), who had a cup of coffee with the Rock at the end of last season, has shown an ability to play a physical game without taking too many penalties. He has also shown more offensive creativity than the team had been expecting.
Wearing one of the three As on the team, veteran Nicholas Hautanen (11, 3-4-7, 18) has added leadership to his all-around solid defensive game.
The two newcomers on the Rock blue-line Brendan Campbell (8, 0-5-5, 13) and Grant McClellan (12, 1-1-2, 14) have added size and toughness to the back end.
At 6-3, 190 pounds, the 20-year-old Campbell has plenty of Junior ‘A’ experience and can play with an edge when necessary.
McClellan, a 6-0, 195-pound Trenton, Mich., native, played middle linebacker on his high school football team and brings that mentality to the hockey rink each and every game.
Gagne likes to say defencemen are usually playing their best when they go unnoticed out on the ice and all five Rock blue-liners have shown an ability to be quite stealthy so far this season.
With only five blue-liners on the squad, the Rock have employed a number of forwards on the back end while they attempt to bolster their lineup.
With all 12 NOJHL squads now one-fifth of the way into their regular season schedules, the majority of them are continuing to tinker with their lineups.
Following are some of the more recent moves this month involving NOJHL squads:
• Blind River Beavers — trade former Timmins Rock defenceman Tyler Somers to the Clarence Beavers, of the CCHL2; acquire defenceman Arshia Mitchell from the Thief River Falls Norskies, of the SIJHL; trade Stephen Mariani to Valley Wildcats, of the MHL;
• Espanola Express — acquire goalie Kyle Alaverdy from the Valley Wildcats, of the MHL;
• Kirkland Lake Gold Miners — acquire forward Alex Storjohann from the Carleton Place Canadians, of the CCHL; acquire forward Adamo Asselin and defenceman Davide Asselin from the Yarmouth Mariners, of the MHL;
• Rayside Balfour Canadians — acquire defenceman Dakotah Woods from the Aurora Tigers, of the OJHL.
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The Timmins Rock may have beaten the Soo Eagles 9-1 Saturday night, but NOJHL’s only American franchise has gained a small modicum of revenge at the box office.
After leading the NOJHL in attendance early on this season, the Rock (646 fans per game) have now slipped to second place behind the Sault, Mich., based Eagles (652).
The Elliot Lake Wildcats (410), are third followed by the Iroquois Falls Eskis (367), the Gold Miners (289), the Express (279), the Beavers (260), the Crunch (258), the Voodoos (200), the French River Rapids (199), the Canadians (185) and the Thunderbirds (172).
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The NOJHL’s Three Stars of the Week are Eskis goalie Artem Bortovskiy, Beavers forward Caleb Serre and Thunderbirds blue-liner Jake Behse.
In three starts last week Bortovskiy earned three wins to help the Eskis make a six-point jump in the standings.
Bortovskiy made 40 saves in a 4-3 upset over the Powassan Voodoos in Day 1 of the NOJHL Showcase on Tuesday. He then had 33 stops Saturday as Iroquois Falls doubled French River 4-2 and wrapped up his solid week with a 38-save performance Sunday as the Eskis earned a home win over the visiting Soo Eagles.
In four games last week Serre amassed seven points as he moved up to third in Beavers scoring.
Turning in a solid two-way performance at the NOJHL Showcase earned Behse league weekly accolades.
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The Crunch have moved up to fifth place in the weekly CJHL Top 20 rankings.
The Crunch, who were ranked sixth last week, are the only NOJHL squad to make the rankings, although the Voodoos and the Rock each earned honourable mention.
The Steinbach Pistons, of the MJHL, remain the CJHL’s top-ranked team.