By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
IROQUOIS FALLS – Eskis fans will have their first opportunity of the 2016-17 campaign to jeer the Timmins Rock Wednesday night at the Jus Jordan Arena.
It will be the first meeting of the NOJHL rivals since the Rock swept a two-game playoff series from the Eskis — 8-1 and 3-1 — with the second of those contests coming at the Jus Jordan Arena in front of 474 enthusiastic fans.
Fans in the Garden Town of the North hold no love for the Rock, previously known as the Abitibi Eskimos when they called the Jus Jordan Arena home prior to relocating to Timmins following the 2014-15 season.
That move, of course, led to the Mattawa Blackhawks arriving in Iroquois Falls and evolving into today’s Eskis.
This year’s edition of the Rock (4-2-0-0) is off to a better start than they were (2-3-1-0) through the same six-game period of 2015-16. They have also scored nine more goals than they had at the same point last year, although they have given up five more tallies, as well.
Like the 2015-16 Rock, this year’s Timmins team still finds itself entrenched in fourth place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings — trailing the Cochrane Crunch, the Powassan Voodoos and the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners.
For the Eskis, a four-goal improvement on offence and an eight-goal improvement in the defensive zone has yet to translate into the win/loss column, however. In fact this year’s Eskis (1-7-0-0) are a step behind last year’s squad (2-6-0-0) at the same point in the season.
As with the 2015-16 edition of the Eskis, Iroquois Falls finds itself firmly wedged between a Rock and a … sixth-place team (French River Rapids, 0-10-0-0). What? You were expecting us to say a hard place?
The Eskis are riding a five-game losing streak heading into Wednesday night’s contest, while the Rock are coming off a 7-3 setback at the hands of the Cochrane Crunch that snapped a four-game winning streak.
Despite the home side’s record, the Rock will not be taking the Eskis for granted when they skate out onto the ice at the Jus Jordan Arena Wednesday night.
“We don’t take any team in our league lightly,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We can’t go in there or anywhere else and think we are going to win every game. That’s a good state of mind, but that’s not the kind of cockiness we can afford. We need to keep both feet on the ground and work hard within our program.
“It doesn’t matter what their record is, or what our record is. They proved that to us a couple of times last year.”
Only two members of the current edition of the Rock — forward Kyle Levis (3, 0-1-1, 8) and defenceman Nicholas Hautanen (6, 2-0-2, 12) — remain from the last edition of the Abitibi Eskimos.
Levi, who missed the past three games due to illness, is expected to make his return to the Rock lineup Wednesday night in Iroquois Falls, as will forward Marcus Blackned (4, 3-3-6, 2), who missed the last two games with an upper-body injury.
Hautanen, however, will sit out the contest as he serves a one-game suspension he received for being assessed an abuse of an official/unsportsmanlike conduct infraction at the end of last Wednesday’s 7-3 home-ice loss to the Cochrane Crunch.
In addition, the status of Rock leading scorer Wayne Mathieu (6, 6-4-10, 0) remains day-to-day.
Gagne is not too sure how much of a rivalry will carry over from last year into this season, but he knows any game against a division rival is big.
“They are in our division, so definitely there is going to be a lot of interest because we want to do well against teams in our own division,” he said.
“It’s our second year here and their second year in Iroquois Falls, so things should be status quo.
The Rock will be looking to continue their strong play on the road Wednesday night in hopes of returning to the win column.
“We have had a great forecheck on the road and that is because of the effort of our five-man unit,” Gagne said.
“Everybody was on the same page out there on the ice. Everybody was in sync. That’s what we are going to be looking for Wednesday night. We are going to be looking to be aggressive on the puck.
“Puck possession is a big part of the game. If we can have puck possession in all three zones, it is going to make a big difference.”
Even when they have been winning, the Rock have had a tendency to spend a little too much time in the penalty box, costing them not only goals but also momentum.
“We had 52 clips from our last game and quite a few of them were negative,” Gagne said.
“Stupid penalties was definitely a theme. We addressed it and hopefully our message will hit home.”
Following last Wednesday’s loss to the Crunch, the Rock have been working hard to hone their game.
“We went hard in practice last week, then took the weekend off,” Gagne said.
“We had had spinning class as a group the night before our last game, so this week we moved spinning class up to Monday night. Today (Tuesday), we are just having a tactical practice.”
Forward Bain Cunningham (6, 1-5-6, 12), who plays on the Rock’s top line with captain Jordan Rendle (6, 3-4-7, 18) and newcomer Cory Sprague (6, 5-2-7, 6), is looking forward to Wednesday night’s contest after recording his first goal of the season against the Crunch.
“We are coming off a bad loss, but we will bounce back,” he said.
“We just have to go out there and play a simple game, try not to do the things we did wrong against Cochrane.”
Cunningham never played for the Eskimos, but after spending the 2015-16 campaign in a Rock jersey he knows how important Wednesday’s contest will be.
“We developed a bit of a rivalry against them last year and I think it will continue this year, especially with both teams having a lot of returning players. We always have a good battle against Iroquois Falls.
“I am really looking forward to playing them tomorrow (Wednesday).”
The 6-3, 206-pound Barrie native isn’t too worried about any jeering from the Eskis’ fans.
“We are not going to be fazed playing in their building,” Cunningham said.
“I feel it (getting jeered) just motivates us. I kind of thrive off of the opposing crowds cheering against us.”
The important thing, from Cunningham’s perspective, is to put last week’s loss to the Crunch in the Rock’s rear-view mirror, so they can focus on starting a new winning streak.
“This game is going to be huge,” he said.
“We have a very busy schedule in October. Getting our first win over the month early will provide our team with a big boost of confidence.”