Rock ready for busy weekend

Unlike the majority of their opponents, the Timmins Rock have played just one game since the start of the NOJHL’s Christmas break back on Dec. 19.

Thomas Perry – The Daily Press/Postmedia Network
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That one contest, a 4-0 victory over the Express in Espanola on Feb. 4, will be the only action the Rock have seen in the past 60 days when the puck drops against the Eagles at Pullar Stadium in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Friday night.

Despite that inactivity, the Rock (24-5-1-1) have maintained their eighth-place ranking in the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s Top 20, although they have fallen to third place in the NOJHL’s overall and East Division standings — six points behind the Hearst Lumberjacks (27-7-2-0) and five points behind the Powassan Voodoos (25-7-4-1).

Lest fans start to panic, however, it is worth noting the Rock have five games in hand on the Lumberjacks and six on the Voodoos.

And starting with a Family Day long weekend that will see them take on the Eagles Friday night, the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Saturday night and the Greater Sudbury Cubs on home ice Monday afternoon, the Rock will play 17 games in next 38 days to end their COVID-19 abbreviated 2021-22 campaign.

If nothing else, the Rock have had plenty of time to practice, practice and practice since NOJHL teams returned from the extended Christmas break on Jan. 31.

And that should be a bit of a positive for the team that still sports the NOJHL’s best winning percentage (.806).

The Rock made two major additions to their blue-liner prior to the CJHL’s Jan. 10 trade deadline — acquiring Eric Moreau from OJHL’s Lindsay Muskies in exchange for a player development fee and Carson Cox from the Lumberjacks in exchange for talented young forward Tyler Patterson.

While the Rock didn’t make any transactions to bolster their forward ranks prior to the trade deadline, they did lure 21-year-old (20 on the Dec. 31 cutoff date) local product Gabinien Kioki out of semi-retirement.

Blue-liner Eric Moreau was a fan favourite during his first three years with the Timmins Rock. After being acquired from the OJHL’s Lindsay Muskies prior to the CJHL’s Jan. 10 deadline, he is looking forward to his first home game with the Rock in 2021-22 when they host the Greater Sudbury Cubs at the McIntyre Arena on Monday, at 3 p.m. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

It didn’t take Moreau, who spent the previous three seasons with the Rock before being dealt to the OJHL’s Collingwood Blues in the off-season, long to make an impact upon his return to the lineup, as he assisted on a Tyler Gilberds goal just 52 seconds into his first 2021-22 NOJHL contest.

“There was a bit of an adjustment,” Moreau said.

“Half of the roster I have never played with before. Perrs (coach and general manager Brandon Perry) I am familiar with, but it was my first time playing for him as my head coach.

“Overall, things were pretty familiar and it was great to get that first win with the guys. I was happy to be back on the ice with everybody.”

That feeling will likely be amplified on Monday afternoon when Moreau, a fan favourite during his first three years with the Rock and his teammates welcome the Greater Sudbury Cubs to the McIntyre Arena.

“Family Day games have always been a pretty big draw for us,” he said.

“There are limitations on capacity, but I am really looking forward to that game. It is always exciting to play in front of these fans.

“This is my favourite Junior ‘A’ arena to play in, for sure.”

Moreau started off the 2021-22 campaign playing for his hometown Blues (11, 0-2-2, 4) before being dealt to the Muskies (20, 0-6-6, 18).

With the Rock well-positioned to make a lengthy playoff drive, hopefully culminating in a CJHL championship, the Penetanguishene, Ont., product is looking forward to getting a chance to finish what this squad started two seasons ago.

“Myself and a couple of guys who are no longer here were robbed of that opportunity (by the COVID-19 pandemic) the past couple of years,” Moreau said.

“This year, we are really looking forward to the opportunity to go deep into the playoffs.”

The Rock are playing a system similar to the one employed by former coach Corey Beer, so there hasn’t been a big learning curve for Moreau since his return to Timmins.

“There have been a few tweaks, but overall it is the same system,” he said.

“Every head coach is a little different and they have their own nuances, but overall it is very similar.”

One of the keys of the system the Rock employ, of course, is the activation of the team’s blue-liners, something that helped Moreau (22, 5-11-16, 6) blossom offensively during the 2020-21 campaign.

“I see myself as a solid two-way defenceman,” he said.

“Taking that step last year was great and I am looking forward to bettering all aspects of my game this year.”

While the Timmins Rock acquired 20-year-old blue-liner Carson Cox from the Hearst Lumberjacks prior to the CJHL’s Jan. 10 deadline, he is still waiting to make his debut with his new NOJHL squad. After sitting out a pair of road games Friday and Saturday, Cox will be eligible to make his Rock debut when they host the Greater Sudbury Cubs at the McIntyre Arena on Monday, at 3 p.m. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

Meanwhile, Cox (18, 5-16-21, 26) has yet to make his Rock debut, as he still has two games remaining to serve on eight-game suspension he picked up after being assessed a major penalty for head contact during a Dec. 10 contest with the Lumberjacks.

If all goes according to plan, Cox will serve those final two games while his new teammates take on the Eagles and Thunderbirds, allowing him to make his Rock debut on home ice against the Cubs Monday afternoon.

“I was definitely glad to get traded to a top team like Timmins,” Cox said, noting his reaction to the Jan. 10 deal.

“I am just looking forward to helping Timmins go for a championship.”

It will be a bit of an adjustment for the Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., product who spent the past two-and-a-half seasons as a member of the Lumberjacks.

“It will be a little bit strange (skating out onto the ice for the first time wearing a different coloured uniform), but it won’t take long to get used to it,” he said.

Being one of the best players on the Lumberjacks and one of the top defenders in the NOJHL, Cox was anything but a fan favourite gliding across the ice of the McIntyre Arena wearing a Hearst uniform, but given the style he plays that should change rather quickly.

“There were a lot of jokes and guys saying they are happy I am on their team now,” Cox said, describing the welcome he got in the Rock dressing room from his new teammates.

“I am very happy now to be here in Timmins. Hearst was nothing but good to me, but I am happy to be here now.”

Cox is the only Albertan on the Rock roster, so he has not had the chance to play with any of his new teammates in the past.

“Guys like (Rock captain Tyler) Schwindt, (Riley) Brosseau and (Tyler) Gilberds, I have played against for like three years now,” he said.

“I am definitely familiar with the way they play.”

Cox appears to be the total package in terms of what teams are looking for in blue-liners.

“I am hoping to bring a lot of physical attributes to this team and I definitely have an offensive skill set that should fit in great with this system,” he said.

When it comes to physical play, the 5-8, 180-pound blue-liner knows he has to stay on the ice to be effective.

“I have definitely been warned a few times, by a few different people, to keep it down a little bit,” Cox said.

“I definitely play physical and there is a line to watch. I won’t cross it again.”

Cox is looking forward to playing in a system that encourages its blue-liners to activate.

“I love Perrs’ system and how the D have the green light to go, jump into the play at all times,” he said.

“I am looking forward to it, a lot.”

Being new to the team, Cox has been working hard to familiarize himself with the new system.

“Practices here are very intense, very fast,” he said.

“I think I have adjusted well.”

Forward Gabinien Kioki is looking forward to helping the Timmins Rock bring an NOJHL and CJHL championship back to the City with a Heart of Gold in his final season of Junior ‘A’ eligibility. After sitting out all of the 2020-21 season and the start of the 2021-22 campaign, he is hoping to provide a boost to the offence down the stretch. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS

After sitting out all of the 2020-21 campaign and the start of the 2021-22 season, Kioki (3, 0-0-0, 2) is still getting up to speed but the Rock are confident he will be able to be a steady contributor down the stretch.

He was originally acquired by the Rock (21, 5-9-14, 4) from the Voodoos (6, 6-2-8, 4) partway through the 2019-20 campaign, after averaging almost a point a game the previous season with Powassan (53, 24-22-46, 18).

“It really feels amazing to be back with the boys,” Kioki said, describing his return to the game he loves.

“It is good to have that feeling back of wanting to win and compete out there. I am just glad to be back.”

Kioki notes the system currently employed by the Rock is similar to the one used when he last suited up for the squad.

“I feel I can bring some experience to the team, some of the younger guys, along with some grit and hard work every game,” he said.

Early on, Kioki has been playing on a line with Liam Wells and Christopher Engelbert, a pair of 18 year olds who have each scored 12 goals this season.

“They can really skate and I really enjoy playing with them,” he said.

Being a local product, Kioki admitted helping the Rock win a championship in his final year of Junior ‘A’ eligibility would be pretty special.

“That would be a dream come true and it is the plan we are working on,” he said.

Sunday’s home game against the Cubs at the McIntyre Arena is scheduled to start at 3 p.m.