THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS Timmins Rock goalie Tyler Masternak, shown here in action during a game against the French River Rapids on Oct. 5, leads the NOJHL in minutes played (905 minutes) and shutouts (three) and sits second in goals against average (2.32) among qualified netminders. Rock coach Corey Beer has not announced who will be in net for either of his team’s games on the weekend, but it is a pretty good bet Masternak will see action against either the Soo Eagles Saturday night and/or the Soo Thunderbirds on Sunday.
Timmins Rock fans will get their first and likely only look at a pair of West Conference teams this weekend at the McIntyre Arena.
Exactly seven days after earning a 4-2 decision over them as Pullar Stadium, the Rock will entertain the Soo Eagles on Saturday night.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, it will be the West Division-leading Soo Thunderbirds — who edged the NOJHL-leading Rock (13-6-1-0) 3-2 last Sunday — who cross sticks with them at the McIntyre Arena.
“Both of these clubs are very fresh in our minds,” said Rock coach Corey Beer.
“Both games we played against them last weekend were physical affairs, good puck possession games. Both teams are very good opponents, so we are going to have our work cut out for us, that’s for sure.”
It will be the third game of a three-games in three nights stretch for the Eagles when they take to the ice at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
They dropped a 7-2 decision to the Lumberjacks in Hearst on Thursday and took on the Crunch in Cochrane on Friday (details were not available at press time).
The Eagles (7-12-0-0) currently find themselves in fifth place in the West Division standings — four points behind the Elliot Lake Wildcats (8-9-0-2) and eight points up on the Espanola Express (3-16-0-0), but Beer knows his squad can’t afford to look past them to Sunday’s clash with the Thunderbirds — like they did two weekends ago when they dropped a 4-3 decision to the Blind River Beavers prior to dumping the Powassan Voodoos 6-1.
“There was some time between the Blind River game at the NOJHL Showcase and when we played them at home,” he said.
“So, the guys kind of looked past them, but that Soo Eagles team is probably as physical as they come. They have a hard forechecking team and I know the guys realize we are going to have a tough challenge.
“If we sleep on these guys, they will run us right out of the building given how hard they work and how physical they are on the forecheck. There will be no looking past those guys.”
Offensively, the Eagles sit eighth in the NOJHL with 61 goals on the season — just three fewer than the Rock’s 64.
They have eight players — Caleb Wood (18, 11-6-17, 10), defenceman Brendan Blair (19, 8-6-14, 22), Kyle Quinn (18, 4-10-14, 21), Riley Jensen (18, 7-6-13, 22), Jake Lamberty (19, 6-5-11, 22), Raf Praysner (17, 4-7-11, 25), Brett Morich (17, 3-7-10, 2) and defenceman Alec Schwab (15, 1-9-10, 26) — who have already cracked the 10-point barrier.
The Rock, meanwhile, led by NOJHL goal-scoring leader Derek Seguin (19, 15-11-26, 8) have nine players, including Riley Robitaille (20, 5-9-14, 25), defenceman Josh Anderson (18, 2-12-14, 33), former Eagles forward Matt Capisciolto (17, 6-7-13, 14), Keegan McMullen (20, 6-7-13, 6), Eamon Bollinger (17, 3-10-13, 30), Riley Brousseau (17, 5-5-10, 9), defenceman Will Caston (18, 1-9-10, 29) and defenceman Ian Elkins (17, 0-10-10), who have hit that mark.
It is defensively where the records of the two teams begin to separate, however, as the Rock who have given up the third fewest goals in the NOJHL, 52, while the Eagles are ranked No. 9 with 64 goals allowed.
If you break the defensive stats down to goals allowed per game, the Rock (2.60) actually move up to No. 2 behind only the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners (2.29).
Workaholic goalie Tyler Masternak (905:00, 11-3-1-0, 3, 2.32, .909) has played more minutes than any other puck stopper in the NOJHL this season, ranks second among qualified netminders in goals against average and leads in shuouts.
His understudy, Nicholas Dicks (308:00, 2-3-0-0, 0, 3.12, .881), has not been quite as steady, but he has shown flashes.
With one fewer minute played than Masternak, the Eagles Joseph Benedetto (904:00, 6-8-0-0, 1, 2.66, .917) has been the second-busiest goalie in the NOJHL this season.
Beer is not surprised the Eagles No. 1 puck stopper has such impressive stats.
“Their back pressure helps that,” he said.
“They work all five guys back into their own zone and every inch of ice is contested. I think that makes the job of a their goalie a little bit easier when the team is buying in in front of him and he makes some great saves.”
The other Eagles goalies include Caleb Sauer (180:00, 1-3-0-0, 0, 3.66 , .874) and Shane Brancato (60:00, 0-1-0-0, 0, 7.00, .794), who was in net for Thursday night’s loss.
Special teams might well prove to be a difference-maker during Saturday night’s contest, especially given that the Rock (309 minutes) are the second-most penalized team in the NOJHL and the Eagles (298 minutes) are fourth.
“It is not a good characteristic for us, for sure,” Beer said.
“It is something we are trying to tidy up. We get some sticking penalties here and there just based on how we attack the hands and try to look for turnovers, but there has been some very undisciplined play from us.
“It is something that had been creeping in more and more and we are trying to get away from it. Our guys need to understand you cannot go in and lose the special teams battle night after night and expect to put wins up on the board. It just doesn’t work that way. It is going to catch up with us sooner or later.”
Even though they sit atop the NOJHL’s overall standings, the Rock are only ninth on the power play with an efficiency rating of 17.0% — just behind the Eagles (17.2%).
The Eagles also have an edge when it comes to penalty killing, as their 89.2% success rating leads the NOJHL, while the Rock, at 82.4%, find themselves in eighth spot.
“Hopefully, our power play will be able to give us a little bit of a notch,” Beer said.
“It is starting to click on all cylinders. Even though we might not have the production, there is the threat.
“The Eagles are absolutely relentless on the penalty kill. They give you no time or space. They do a great job in front of the net, boxing out and fronting shots.
“Whenever we get a chance at a scoring opportunity, we may as well kiss it goodbye if we can’t get the shot off our sticks in the blink of an eye. They do a heck of a job on the PK and they have a pressure forecheck on their penalty kill, too. It causes a little bit of a disruption up ice.”
The Rock, knock on wood, have yet to yield a shorthanded goal this season, while they have netted a pair.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have scored two shorthanded markers and also surrendered a pair.
Like the Eagles, the Thunderbirds will be playing their third game in three nights when they tangle with the Rock on Sunday, but Beer does not necessarily see that as an advantage for the home side.
“We want to play a quick, up-tempo kind of game to try and grind them down, but you look back to this past weekend and our best period of the entire weekend was the third period of Sunday’s game against the Thunderbirds,” he said.
“Given how good both of these clubs are and their push back, I don’t expect there to be too much of a drop off. They might experience it for a couple of shifts here or there, but these are 16 to 20 year old kids. They will find their legs somehow.
“The third period of a game, if they are down by a goal or up by a goal, they will find a way to get it done.
“So, from our standpoint, we need to make sure we play a 60-minute game and make sure we limit their quality chances against us.”
With 66 goals on the season, the Thunderbirds are just ahead of the Rock in the NOJHL offensive rankings, but they have played four fewer games heading into the weekend.
The Thunderbirds have seven players — Lucas Theriault (16, 13-12-25, 15), Noah Boman (16, 7-17-24, 15), defenceman Steven Bellini (15, 4-14-18, 2), Nick Smith (15, 9-7-16, 21), Tyler Malpass (13, 6-6-12, 14), Kaidan McDonald (16, 6-6-12, 12) and Nolan Ford (16, 4-8-12, 8) — who had topped the 10-point mark on the season.
In addition, Matthew Bazarin (9, 3-6-9, 22) is averaging a point a game and the Thunderbirds have just reacquired Sault Ste. Marie native Gage Stephney — who had a great deal of success with the team in 2017-18 (48, 16-17-33, 56) — from the St. Catherines Falcons, of the GOJHL.
Defensively, the Thunderbirds rank No. 2 in the NOJHL with 43 goals allowed on the season.
Both of the team’s goalies — Colin Ahern (545:00, 8-1-0-0, 0, 2.42, .921) and William Anderson (424:00, 5-2-0-0, 0, 2.69, .896) — have been solid between the pipes.
The Rock will be missing forward Tyler Hutchinson (3, 0-0-0, 17) for Saturday’s contest, as he serves the one-game suspension he picked up during Sunday’s 3-2 loss to the Thunderbirds in Sault Ste. Marie.
“Health-wise, I guess every team goes through flu-bug woes at some point in the season,” Beer said.
“It seems to be spreading a bit through our room right now, so there will be some guys who are game-time decisions or who might not even make it to the rink.
“It has been a bit of a hectic week at practice, but overall I think we are in pretty good shape.”
On a positive note, defenceman James Redmond (25, 2-5-7, 6) — who has been out of the lineup since mid-December and has yet to seen any action in 2018-19 after undergoing off-season surgery for the upper-body injury — is back on the ice and practising with his teammates.
“It will be a big bonus, hopefully in the near future, when he returns to the lineup,” Beer said.
“He will be a monster addition for us.”
The right-hand shooting, 1998-birth-year blue-liner from Ottawa was one of the team’s top defenders last season and attempted to come back from his injury on numerous occasions before finally having to sit out the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
With Redmond’s return, the Rock are back up to eight defencemen on the roster, but Beer does not anticipate any deletions in the near future.
“With how things have been going on the back end, with some of the injuries and stuff, we want to make sure we err on the side of caution,” he said.