By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Tyler Romain scored a pair of goals and dished out two assists to lead the Timmins Rock to a 5-2 win over the Cochrane Crunch Wednesday night at the McIntyre Arena.
It was the third-straight win for the Rock (18-6-0-0) who pulled to within one point of the second-place Crunch (16-6-4-1) in the NOJHL East Division standings. The Rock have three games in hand on the Crunch.
“This was a big statement game for us tonight and everyone was really clicking,” Romain said.
“Our line tried to keep things simple. We tried to get pucks deep. We had our forecheck going and we had a good cycle game tonight. We knew we had to get pucks to the net after the cycle and that’s what we did.
Despite being outshot 11-9 in the opening 20 minutes, the Rock jumped out to a 2-0 first-period lead.
Defenceman Jared Hester beat Crunch goalie Jacob Burhans with a wrist shot from the point for his seventh goal of the season, a power-play marker, at the 4:53 mark of the opening frame.
Blue-liner Brendan Campbell then broke in all alone to beat Burhans for his second goal of the season eight-and-a-half minutes later to increase the Rock advantage to two goals heading into the first intermission.
Romain then increased the Rock lead to 3-0 just 47 seconds into the second period when he scored his 18th goal of the season, a marker that would stand up to be the game-winner.
“The puck was dumped down low, so I went in for the forecheck,” Romain said.
“I saw (Jacob) Shankar there and he left it for Bain (Cunningham). Bain saw me coming around the net and saw that I was going to pop out front and he fed it to me. I couldn’t have popped that one in without the hard work of those two guys.
Shankar had missed the past four games while serving a suspension he picked up after being assessed a slew-footing infraction in a game against the Kirkland Lake Gold Miners earlier this month.
“It was nice to get the kid back in the lineup,” Romain said.
“He is an enforcer out there for us. He throws the body around and opens up room for me and Bain. Bain is big body, too, but Jacob helps us find open areas and clears the way for us.”
The Crunch got that one back just 32 seconds later, however, as Bailey Shaver scored his third goal of the season to cut the home side’s advantage to 3-1.
Cochrane continued to claw its way back into the contest and defenceman Joseph Thielen netted his first goal of the season just over 12 minutes later to send the visitors to the dressing room trailing just 3-2 after 40 minutes.
Despite running into penalty after penalty early in the third period, the Rock were able to weather multiple attempts by the Crunch to get the equalizer — thanks in large part to the goaltending of Albert Rogers, who was making his second start in a Rock uniform after being acquired in a deal with the French River Rapids last week.
Rogers turned aside all 25 Crunch shots he faced in the third period, as the visitors enjoyed numerous power-play opportunities — including one five-on-three advantage that lasted for a full two minutes.
The Rock gained a little breathing room when Romain broke in all alone for his 19th goal of the season after stealing the puck at the Crunch blue-line.
“I saw their defenceman go down in a little slouch and I knew I could poke the puck away from him and it worked out pretty well,” Romain said.
“I took a quick look and I saw his blocker side wide open, so I delayed my shot and made it look like I was going to deke, but I just shot it.”
Shankar then provided a little icing on the cake when he scored his ninth goal of the season, a power-play maker, midway through the final 20 minutes.
Rock assistant coach James Daschuk was happy to see his team finally earn its first win of the 2016-17 campaign against the Crunch Wednesday night.
“It is no secret that we have had a bit of hard time against them recently,” he said.
“You could tell it was a very emotional game out there, especially for our guys. We really wanted this game and it is one of those games that really feel good to win.”
The assistant coach agreed one of the keys to Wednesday night’s victory was getting off to a fast start.
“One of the keys to our season, so far, has been our ability to get off to fast starts in most of our games,” Daschuk said.
“We kind of got away from that during the two games where we struggled out of town, so it was good to jump in front 3-0 tonight.”
Two starts into his career in a Rock uniform, Rogers is quickly becoming a fan favourite at the McIntyre Arena.
“He had a hell of a game back there,” Daschuk said.
“He reminds me of Carey Price. He is cool and calm back there, no stress at all. I think that helps to calm down everybody else on the team, as well.”
One of the strengths of Rogers’ game is his ability to control his rebounds and not give opponents second or third looks.
“Right from his first practice with us, that is one of the things that has impressed us as coaches,” Daschuk said.
“Even on shots when he is not going to smother the puck, he directs it into the corner.”
Daschuk was also impressed with the play of the Romain, Cunningham and Shankar line.
“Tyler just keeps scoring,” he said.
“He has been playing great and doing what we have been asking of him. He is getting the scoring chances and he is making them pay off.
“That whole line has been playing good and getting Shanks (Shankar) back tonight was huge for us. He adds a bit of size (6-0, 195 pounds) to compensate for Tyler (5-7, 160 pounds).”
The Rock and the Crunch kept referees Brenden Bujold and Dan Clermont busy, with each side being assessed 12 infractions.
“When you get that much emotion in a game at the end of November, I think you could consider the rivalry between our two teams as being pretty strong,” Daschuk said.
“These are the kinds of games you should really be able to get up for, against one of the top teams in your division.”
Wednesday night’s contest was the first game of a five-game stretch that will see them play the Crunch and the NOJHL East Division-leading Powassan Voodoos twice and the fourth-place Kirkland Lake Gold Miners once.
“These are five big games that we had circled on our schedule,” Daschuk said.
“We know what we are going to be up against during the next couple of weeks, so it is great to be able to win that first one.”
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard felt goaltending was the difference between the two teams Wednesday night.
“We outshot them 25-13 in the third period, but the difference was their goalie came to play,” he said.
“It is pretty hard to win a hockey game when your goalie whiffs on a shot from the blue-line on a wrist shot for the first goal of the game when you are on the road. Right away the guys heads hang down.
“We have got to some consistency in net. And out defence, right now, is just slow. We gave up six breakaways tonight. You can’t win hockey games playing like that.
“We need some work on our back end and our goaltenders have to start playing more consistent. If not, you are going to find another one coming in here pretty soon.”
Despite the loss, Leonard did see some positives from his team Wednesday night.
“Our forecheck was strong and we generated lots of shots on goal,” he said.
“The shots on goal show that we definitely outplayed them. The only problem is we kept giving them odd-man rushes. There was not a lot of zone play. It was just a lot of odd-man rushes.
“We have to fix that, but the problem is that it’s all our veterans back there on defence who are making all the mistakes.”
On a positive note, there was one line in particular that stood out for Leonard Wednesday night.
“Kyle Herbster, Nicolas Flanders and (Austin) Stauffer, that whole line work hard every night,” he said.
“Those guys just buzz, buzz, buzz. If we can get some consistency from our top guys, night-in and night-out, we would be really dangerous.”
Rogers turned aside 48 of the 50 shots he faced to pick up his second victory in as many starts in a Rock uniform.
Burhans blocked 32 of the 37 shots the Rock fired his way and was tagged with the loss.
NOJHL NOTES — The three stars were Romain, Rogers and Cunningham, who picked up three assists in the contest … The Rock did not dress defenceman Spencer Segui (upper-body injury) and coach and general manager Paul Gagne (flu-like symptoms). Goalie Matthew Nixon, who had been out with a lower-body injury, returned to backup Rogers … The Rock went 2-7 on the power play, while the Crunch were 0-8 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 734 … Newly acquired Crunch forward Shane Woolsey remains out of the lineup with a lower-body injury. He is not likely to be ready to suit up for action until mid-December … The Rock will return to action on Saturday night when they host the Voodoos at the McIntyre Arena as part of Rogers Hometown Hockey weekend. Game time is set for 7:30 p.m.