By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Wayne Mathieu’s power-play goal with 2:20 remaining in regulation lifted the Timmins Rock to a 4-3 victory over the Elliot Lake Wildcats at the McIntyre Arena Saturday night.
Defenceman Patrick Gazich had just returned to the ice two seconds prior to Mathieu’s game-winner to create a two-man advantage for the home side.
Any hopes the Wildcats had of coming back to tie things up were dashed on the play as blue-liner Damian Figueira was assessed a double minor for spearing on the play leaving the visitors two men short until there were just 37 seconds remaining on the clock.
The Wildcats inability to stay out of the penalty box, especially late in the third period, certainly proved to be a factor, as the Rock were presented with 11 power-play opportunities in the contest, two of which they were able to convert into goals.
Rock blue-liner James Watier, who picked up a pair of assists in the contest and turned in some solid work in the defensive zone to earn Daily Press first star of the game honours, agreed it was a big win for the squad and its hopes of finishing second in the NOJHL East Division standings.
“We just battled like we have for the past few games,” he said.
“A couple of bounces went our way and we are happy with the win. We will take the two points.”
Saturday night’s win allowed the Rock (32-14-3-0) to pull within eight points of the idle Cochrane Crunch (35-13-4-1) in the battle for second place in the NOJHL’s East Division standings. And the Rock still have four games in hand on their rivals.
While Watier was happy to earn two more assists in Saturday night’s victory, he takes as much pride if not more with his contributions in his own end of the rink.
“I just try to be a good, all-around defenceman and do whatever is best for the program we play,” he said.
“In the offensive zone, I just try to get the puck to the net and let the forwards do the rest.”
Watier, whose likeness was featured on the Timmins Rock hockey card distributed to fans at the game, got to sign autographs for a long line of youngster following the contest.
Asked which honour — the two assists, being selected first star, having his picture on the hockey card or getting to sign autographs — was most special, Watier simply replied: “I guess they are all up there, but I am just glad we got the two points.”
Like everyone in the organization, Watier would like to see the Rock catch the Crunch and earn home ice advantage in a likely first-round playoff series.
“Right now, we are just going out there and taking things one shift at a time,” he said.
“We are trying to win every game, because obviously we want home-ice advantage, but either way we are going to be ready to play when we meet them.”
Despite playing their sixth game in nine nights, the Rock jumped out to a 2-1 first-period advantage.
Defenceman Jared Hester got the puck rolling for the home side when he put the Rock in front with his ninth goal of the season just 1:30 into the contest.
The Wildcats were able to get back on even terms four minutes later, however, when Evan Spencer scored his eighth goal of the season while Elliot Lake was killing off a penalty.
Cole Gilligan’s 22nd goal of the season 43 seconds later restored the Rock’s one-goal advantage and sent the two teams to their dressing rooms for the first intermission with the Rock up 2-1.
The Wildcats again battled back to tie things up, at 2-2, when Ty Hannaford beat Rock goalie Albert Rogers for his eighth goal of the season at the 8:35 mark of the second period.
Jacob Kelly then gave the Wildcats their lone lead of the contest, 3-2, as he potted his 13th goal of the season just past the midway mark of the frame.
The Rock were able to tie things up at 3-3 before the end of the second period, however, as captain Jordan Rendle scored his team-leading 29th goal of the season with the home side on the power play.
That’s the way the score remained until Mathieu delivered his late-game heroics.
Wildcats coach and general manager Corey Bricknell felt his team played well enough to win Saturday night.
“Penalty trouble definitely got in the way for us tonight, especially playing against a team like Timmins,” he said.
“They have a highly skilled offensive team. On the winning goal, we had a missed assignment on the backdoor.
“At the end of the day, I liked the way the boys battled and I like the way our young goalie, Justin Richer, made some big saves to keep the score close.
“It would have been nice to get a point out of tonight’s game, but on a northern road trip to pick up two out of a possible four points isn’t bad. There is a lot of stuff to learn from the video and we will just have to chalk it up as a learning session.”
In addition to Richer, there were a number of other Wildcats who impressed their coach Saturday night.
“Evan Spencer and Jacob Kelly have been playing well for us and playing consistent,” Bricknell said.
“On the back end, we have been using Leejay (Meguinis) as a forward and a defenceman and I thought he played really well tonight along with Connor Harding.
“Our guys played as well as I wanted them to tonight, but we just ran into some penalty trouble at the end.”
The Wildcats were fully aware the Rock were playing their sixth game in nine nights Saturday and they had hoped to capitalize on that fact.
“Our plan had been to play an up-tempo game and try to tire them out, but we were only able to generate 16 shots over two periods of play and get three goals,” Bricknell said.
“You have to be able to get more pucks on net and I think we were able to do a better job of that in the third period. It was more of a run-and-gun, back-and-forth game.”
After playing five-straight games on the road in the span of just seven days, assistant coach James Daschuk was happy with the effort his squad put forth Saturday night.
“It felt good just to be able to play a home game,” he said, with a chuckle.
“I think again tonight both teams played pretty good hockey games. It was maybe a little bit like the last game in Kirkland Lake where there were points where both teams were a little bit scared to make mistakes.
“I don’t think we had as much jump tonight as maybe we could have had, but considering how many games we have played in so few days that’s understandable. I think we played more with our brains tonight, meaning we stuck to our program and we didn’t work hard for nothing.
“After playing this many games in such a short period of time, I think that was important for us.”
The game plan called for the Rock to keep things as simple as possible Saturday night.
“We wanted our D-men to walk the line and shoot the puck,” Daschuk said.
“We were able to get a couple of power-play goals tonight, which was good.”
Daschuk, who coaches the Rock blue-liners, felt Watier played a complete game Saturday night.
“Watier has been playing great for us lately,” he said.
“His dad flew in from the United States to watch him play tonight, which was nice. He has been playing a lot tougher for us lately and I think he is feeling more comfortable in the program. That builds a bit of confidence and when hockey guys are confident, they play better.
“The assists he got tonight weren’t anything fancy, but his job was to shoot the puck on net and he did that.”
The assistant coach was also impressed with the play of Rendle, who had the game-tying goal, and Mathieu, who netted the game-winner.
“You count on those guys, your big dogs, to do the work and that’s what they did tonight,” Daschuk said.
“On the game-winner, Wayne was right there in front of the net in one of those tough areas.”
Daschuk also singled out a couple of other Rock blue-liners for a little extra praise.
“I thought Hester, on the back end playing with Watier tonight, was great when he had the puck,” he said.
“He was looking up ice and making the smart plays. They did a really great job of getting pucks to the net.
“I might be a bit biased, but I thought (Nicholas) Hautanen played a simple, effective game tonight. He played a lot of minutes against their big line and I thought he was great with and without the puck tonight.”
Rogers, making his seventh-straight start in the Rock net, turned aside 23 of the 26 shots he faced to pick up the win.
Richer blocked 40 of the 44 shots the Rock fired his way and was tagged with the loss for the Wildcats.
NOJHL NOTES — The Rock were without the services of forward Jacob Shankar (serving the second game of a four-game suspension he picked up during a 6-1 loss to the Crunch in Cochrane on Tuesday night), defenceman Brendan Campbell (illness) and goalie Jeff Veitch (illness). Timmins Majors forward Evan Kentish-Stack made his seventh appearance in a Rock uniform, while his Majors teammate Jimmy Carleton served as Rogers backup … Rock forward Nicholas Hway and Wildcats defenceman Ryan McGee were ejected from the game after getting five-minute majors and game misconducts for their first-period fight … The Daily Press three stars of the game were Watier, Richer and Rendle … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 780 … Saturday night’s other action saw the French River Rapids pick up their second win of the season, 8-6 over the Eskis in Iroquois Falls, the Blind River Beavers edge the Canadians 4-3 in Rayside-Balfour and the Voodoos down the Espanola Express 6-1 in Powassan. … The Rock will return to action on Wednesday night when they host the Iroquois Falls Eskis at the McIntyre Arena.