Timmins Rock forward Linden Spencer gains control of a bouncing puck as he pulls away from Soo Thunderbirds forward Alex Acosta in the neutral zone during the first period of Sunday afternoon’s NOJHL game at the McIntyre Arena. The Rock dropped a 1-0 decision to the Thunderbirds to finish up the regular-season opening weekend with a record of 1-2-0-0. The Rock will travel to Hearst for a game against the Lumberjacks at the Claude Larose Arena on Friday night. THOMAS PERRY/THE DAILY PRESS
By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock couldn’t buy a goal Sunday afternoon as the tight-checking Soo Thunderbirds played a near perfect road game while blanking the home side 1-0 at the McIntyre Arena.
The loss wrapped up a three-game regular-season opening weekend for the Rock who were able to muster just one victory and four goals in a 3-1 loss to the French River Rapids Friday night, a 3-1 victory over the Hearst Lumberjacks Saturday night and Sunday’s whitewash.
Rock coach Corey Beer realizes his team is not going to win too many hockey games if his team can’t put the puck in the back of the net on a more regular basis.
“Maybe we got a little unlucky around the net, but you have to be able to win puck battles there,” he said.
“It’s a high priority zone and the Soo did a tremendous job of boxing out and making sure their guys were in the right spots defensively.
“We need to work a little harder and be a little hungrier around the net.
“You have to give credit to their goalie, Brandon Gordon, as well. He was outstanding tonight and made our life difficult all evening.”
The Rock had four power play opportunities in the contest, including a lengthy two-man advantage in the third period, but they were not able to convert on any of them.
“We didn’t seem to play with any urgency,” Beer said.
“We outlined things before the game with video, but we are probably going to have to look at that and revamp things, both in terms of players and strategy.”
Thunderbirds forward Nick Smith accounted for the game’s only scoring when he beat Rock goalie Eric Jackson for his first goal of the season at the 7:24 mark of the second period.
On a positive note, the Rock surrendered just that one goal to a talented Thunderbirds squad, but Beer was taking little comfort from that fact following Sunday’s defeat.
“I thought we were good in terms of our structure and that, but we were not very clean on our exits,” he said.
“We had a little bit of trouble finding the open man. There were small things we need to tinker with”
Beer was again happy with the netminding of Jackson, who played all but one period of the three games on the weekend.
“He gave us every chance to win this game, but we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain,” he said.
There were a few other Rock players who impressed their coach, as well.
“I thought (defenceman) James Watier was outstanding today,” Beer said.
“He plays big minutes in every situation and he is one of those guys who lead us on the ice with his performance. I can’t say enough good things about him.
“Up front, Wayne Mathieu blocked a key shot for us. He battled through with a little bit of a limp.
“Those are two veteran guys who led by example today, but we need more of that, though. We need more of our guys to raise their compete level and do the little things you need to do to win hockey games.”
When most teams are struggling to put the puck in the net the key is usually to get back to the basics, including having players go to the dirty areas in front of the net to screen goalies and deflect shots.
“That has got to be a priority for us,” Beer said.
“We need to get some shots through from the point and get some grit level in front of the net. Right now, we are sitting on the outside, on the fringes, not doing what it takes to score goals.
“Some gritty goals would be nice, but we have to do the hard work first.”
The Rock will have a full week of practice before they travel to Hearst for a game against the Lumberjacks at the Claude Larose Arena on Friday.
“We are going to do a ton of battle drills,” Beer said.
“In two of the past three games, we didn’t win enough battles to be successful. We are a small team and if we don’t have the puck all night, we are not going to win physical battles.”
The Rock are nursing a couple of bumps and bruises after playing three games in two-and-a-half days, but Beer doesn’t feel any of them will result in players missing significant time.
Thunderbirds new coach John Parco was happy to see his team complete its three-game road trip through the North with a pair of victories.
“All three games were really close, tight-checking contests and we were able to come out with two wins, so I am very happy,” he said.
The Thunderbirds dropped a 2-0 decision to the Lumberjacks on Friday night, with the second goal being scored into an empty net, and then edged the Crunch 3-2 in Cochrane Saturday night before finishing up with Sunday’s 1-0 victory at the McIntyre Arena.
“We wanted to play an old-fashioned road game today and that’s exactly what we did,” Parco said.
“We tried to keep things really, really simple and keep the pucks along the boards, with little chip-outs and chip-ins.”
Thunderbirds goalie Brandon Gordon, a 20-year-old Sault Ste. Marie native, was clearly the best player on the ice for either team Sunday afternoon.
“He is a big leader in our dressing room,” Parco said.
“We know we can depend on him.”
The coach was pleased with his entire squad, but he did single out a few players for a little extra praise.
“I thought our whole line of (Noah) Sullinger, (Kaidan) McDonald and Smith were constantly working out there on the ice,” Parco said.
“They had a really, really good game.”
The Thunderbirds are the defending NOJHL West Division champions, but not many players are back from that squad.
“We decided to go with a really young team this year,” Parco said.
“We have a lot of 2000-birth-year players and we will have three and possibly four 2001-birth-year players.
“We are rebuilding, but we are comfortable with the guys we brought in. We know it is going to be an up and down season, but we are looking forward to the challenge.”
Past Thunderbirds championship squads were built around sound goaltending and solid defence and this year’s team appears to be no exception to that formula.
“That is a very safe assessment, although we do have an entire line out of our lineup right now,” Parco said.
“We have a suspended player and three or four injuries. We are also waiting on a couple of players who are still in camp with the (OHL) Sault Ste. Marie Greynounds.
“Once we get a few guys back, maybe we can change our approach a little bit.”
Parco like what he saw from the team at the other end of the rink.
“I was really impressed with what I saw from this Timmins team,” he said.
“They are, by far, the best-coached team we have played so far. They are really well organized.”
Gordon stopped all 26 shots he faced to pick up his first victory and first shutout of the season.
Jackson turned aside 21 of the 22 shots fired his way and was tagged with the loss for the Rock.
NOJHL NOTES — The Daily Press three stars of the game were Gordon, Smith and Jackson … The Rock did not dress defenceman Lucas Dolanjski and forward A.J. Campbell, both of whom were healthy scratches … The Rock were 0-4 on the power play, while the Thunderbirds were 0-5 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 652.