By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – This weekend’s home-and-home series between the Timmins Rock and the Cochrane Crunch could see a proverbial eight-point swing in the NOJHL’s East Division standings.
Heading into the series that begins Friday night at the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane and concludes Saturday night at the McIntyre Arena in Timmins, the East Division-leading Crunch (39, 29-6-2-2, 62) hold a 13-point lead on the fourth-place Rock (40, 24-15-0-1, 49).
A pair of Crunch victories could expand that gap to 17 points, while two Rock wins would see it shrink to just nine points.
The Crunch have only one regulation loss on home ice all season — at 4-3 setback against the Rock on Nov. 26. That Timmins victory followed a 6-5 win in the first meeting of the two teams on Oct. 18 at the McIntyre Arena.
Cochrane has rebounded, however, to win the last two games in the series — 5-2 at the McIntyre Arena on Dec. 12 and 5-3 at the Tim Horton Event Centre on Jan. 9.
That most recent loss saw the Rock fall behind 5-1 before storming back to close the gap to two goals with a spirited third period.
That in itself was quite an accomplishment given the team was missing forward Zachary Kercz (serving a one-game suspension), forward Tristan Salesse (serving the sixth game of a seven-game suspension), forward Wayne Mathieu (upper-body injury), forward Devin Panzeca (traded to the Chatham Maroons, of the GOJHL), forward Mike Norris (traded to the English River Miners, of the SIJHL) and goalie Logan Ferrington (upper-body injury).
The only Rock player — other than the two traded away — not expected to be in the lineup for Friday night’s contest is Mathieu, who has been able to practise this week but likely won’t return to action until sometime next week at the earliest.
“Every game we play is important, but this is a nice little rivalry,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We always have good matches against Cochrane. The last game we played against them, we had two-and-a-half lines, basically. We had suspensions, illnesses and injuries and we still did well.
“We are hoping we can continue to play the same way we did in our last game against Powassan (a 4-3 overtime victory).”
Gagne is not sure what the Crunch or his team has done differently to account for the fact the Rock won the first two games in the series but have dropped the last two.
“I don’t there there has really been any different,” he said.
“We know their style. They will try to get as many shots on net as they can and we have just got to explore their goaltenders (Brett Young or Allan Menary).
“I think he (Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard) has probably had the most goaltender changes this season, so we know they are vulnerable back there, so we have to explore that situation.
“We have got a pretty good offence, but a lot of times it comes down to goaltending and we have had stellar goaltending from Logan Ferrington.”
Ferrington is third in the NOJHL with a .916 saves percentage, while Menary (.915) is fifth and Young (.914) is tied for seventh.
The Crunch — who lead the NOJHL in goals scored, with 223 — already have five 20-plus-goal scorers this season in Hunter Atchison (38, 37-39-76, 28), Dustin Cordeiro 39, 32-34-66, 37), Seamus Maguire (35, 20-34-54, 53), Jeran Knorr (39, 20-27-47, 21) and John Stevenson (35, 23-20-43, 17).
In addition, newcomers Jon Marzec (22, 13-22-35, 8), Aviv Milner (19, 9-14-23, 15) and Brenden Van Sweden (5, 5-1-6, 2), who was picked up prior to the trade deadline, have also provide a boost to the Cochrane attack.
The Rock — second in the NOJHL in goals scored, with 190 — have six players averaging at least a point a game in Zachary Kercz (39, 20-44-64, 66), Tristan Salesse (29, 22-30-52, 14), Jordan Rendle (37, 25-26-51, 44), Bain Cunningham (39, 19-2-41, 34), Ryan Theriault (34, 16-20-36, 30), Aaron Kerr (11, 10-8-18, 2).
Landen Matechuk (1, 0-2-2, 0), picked up just before the trade deadline, gives the Rock another offensive option, as well.
While the dimensions of the rinks at the Tim Horton Event Centre and the McIntyre Arena are significantly different, Gagne does not envision either team modifying its game plan.
“You tend to want to close in the neutral zone and make sure we have our program in tact there,” he said.
“When you have two offensive teams like we have here, you tend to want to be careful with the turnovers. If we can do that, then we are not walking into their game and we will have our chances. We will have our two-on-ones, three-on-twos.
“We just have to eliminate our giveaways and turnovers. Patience is part of it and we have to believe … and we do believe. We have been on a great ride. We had a little hick-up there against Powassan in the first period. It was not up to par, at all.”
Ferrington who played in the Rock’s first three games against the Crunch, but missed the 5-3 loss in Cochrane on Jan. 9 due to an injury, knows the Crunch have plenty of snipers.
“I am just going to have to focus on the puck,” he said.
“Everyone on their team is able to shoot the puck and they have a lot of playmakers, so I am just going to have to follow the puck and try to get my body in front of it and make the save.
“Atchison has been putting up a lot of points and he likes to get in front of the net and get into the dirty areas to put the puck away, so it is going to be a matter of trying to clear him away from the puck, limit his chances and hopefully change the game.”
Ferrington, who has missed time this year with both upper-body and lower-body injuries, returned to the lineup Saturday night against the Voodoos and didn’t feel any ill effects.
“I felt pretty good,” he said.
“I knew I was ready to play and didn’t have any aches or any pains. I wanted that game bad since we lost to them during the last game against them here with less than one second left.”
Ferrington knows what the Rock are going to have to do to sweep this weekend’s games.
“We are just going to have to capitalize on the opportunities they give us,” he said.
“They are a high-scoring team and they make things happen. Every time they come out, they come out to play and every game we have had with them this year has been a close game.”
Even though the Crunch are coming off a 6-3 loss to the Eskis in Iroquois Falls in their last contest, Leonard is confident his squad is up to sweeping the Rock this weekend.
“Against Iroquois Falls, we fired 75 shots on net but we just couldn’t beat their goaltender (Joe Sheppard),” he said.
“It was one of those nights where it didn’t matter what we did, the goalie was stopping everything. I thought the effort was there, but it was just another three-games-in-three-days weekend.
“We are just going to have to make sure were work the puck down low a little bit more than we did on Saturday night against the Eskimos, but overall, I just want to see the same effort … maybe just a few more crisp passes.”
There is no great secret to why the Crunch are having more success against the Rock lately than they did at the start of the season in Leonard’s mind.
“The puck is starting to go in the net now,” he said.
“The first two games we lost to them, we outshot them 47-30 and 50-27, but we just weren’t getting the bounces. Now, the bounces have started going our way and we are getting rewarded for the chances we are getting against them.”
Another key for the Crunch this weekend will be minimizing the chances they give to the Rock.
“We just have to worry about the defensive end, but Brett Young has been playing excellent as of late,” Leonard said.
“If our first line wakes up right now, I don’t think there are many teams in the league that will touch us. We got a win against Powassan, we got an overtime point against Kirkland Lake, big-game wins, without our first line getting any points in the games.
“Their first two goals in the last five games came during the third period against Iroquois Falls. If they start scoring, we are going to be in good shape.”
While the Rock will be missing Mathieu, the Crunch enter the weekend completely healthy.
The game time for both Friday’s contest at the Tim Horton Event Centre and Saturday’s at the McIntyre Arena is 7:30 p.m.