By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – The Timmins Rock will have their sights set firmly on second place in the NOJHL East Division standings when they play three games in two-and-a-half days this weekend.
First up for the Rock (18-6-1-0) will be a visit to the Tim Horton Event Centre in Cochrane Friday night for their fourth meeting of the season with the Crunch (17-7-4-1), who currently sit in second — two points ahead of the Rock and 10 points behind the seemingly unbeatable Powassan Voodoos (24-3-1-0), who have won 17-straight games heading into a Friday night showdown with the Gold Miners (13-14-2-1) in Kirkland Lake.
Saturday night will see the Rock and the Voodoos switch locations, with Timmins visiting the Joe Mavrinac Community Complex and Powassan making a stop in Cochrane.
The Voodoos will then pay their second visit to the McIntyre Arena in the past eight days, as the two sides conclude their weekend with a 2 p.m. start on Sunday.
For the Rock, it will conclude a stretch of five tough games — two each against the Crunch and the Voodoos and one against the Gold Miners.
With three of a possible four points in the first two games of that stretch — a 5-2 win over the Crunch on Nov. 23 and a 4-3 double-overtime loss to the Voodoos on Saturday night — the Rock are off to a good start.
The Rock are quite familiar with the three division rivals they will face this weekend.
“It’s not like we haven’t faced them before,” said Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne.
“We have an idea of what needs to be done against each of the three teams. For example, during the first game against Cochrane, we know we are going to have to have lots of energy and put pressure on the puck.”
That strategy paid off for the Rock during their 5-2 victory over the Crunch on Nov. 23, after Cochrane won the first two games against Timmins — 8-3 at the McIntyre Arena on Sept. 28 and 4-2 during the NOJHL Showcase in Sudbury on Oct. 11.
“They are bleeding a little bit right now, so we have to make sure we keep our foot on the gas peddle,” Gagne said.
After a strong start to the season, the Crunch had lost three-straight games in regulation before snapping that streak with a 3-1 win over the Eskis in Iroquois Falls Saturday night.
The Rock will be looking to jump on the Crunch early Friday night to prevent the home side from building any momentum and take the crowd out of the game.
“When you can get an early lead and then maintain the momentum, that’s what it’s all about,” Gagne said.
“When you get that first goal, it makes a big difference.”
The coach expects special teams to be a big factor during the three weekend games.
“Saturday night, against Powassan, the Voodoos scored two goals on the power play and we didn’t score any,” Gagne said.
“That made a big difference. They got two points and we got just one point.
“It won’t be any different against Cochrane Friday night. We are going to need to capitalize on our power-play chances.”
Heading into the weekend, the Rock have the second best power play in the NOJHL, with an efficiency rating of 23.0% — second only to the Voodoos’ 24.4%.
With an efficiency rating of 22.7%, the Crunch have the third-best power-play, while the Gold Miners, at 16.2%, are 11th out of the NOJHL’s 12 teams.
The Rock are tied for sixth in the NOJHL on the penalty kill, with an efficiency rate of 82.1%.
The Voodoos are tops in the league with a kill rate of 91.3%, while the Crunch, at a rate of 82.6%, sit fifth and the Gold Miners, at a rate of 79.9%, are eighth.
Of course, it is hard for teams to build or maintain momentum when they are constantly having to kill off penalties, regardless of whether their opponents score or not.
“You only end up seeing one-third of the ice,” Gagne said.
“You spend a lot of time in your defensive zone and while sometimes it is a positive that you killed off a penalty you have 16 other players on the bench watching because not everybody plays on the penalty kill.”
Indeed, often teams chose to employ defensive specialists in that role while offensive stars sit and watch.
That might not necessarily be the case with the Gold Miners, given they lead the NOJHL with 11 shorthanded goals this season.
The Rock are fifth in that category with four, while the Voodoos are fourth with five and the Crunch are tied for 10th with one.
While the Rock will play three games this weekend, the focus of the team is squarely on Friday night’s contest in Cochrane.
“It might sound cliche, but we can only play one game at a time, one period at a time and one shift at a time,” Gagne said.
“We are going to have to go out there and outwork them, outsmart them and play our game.”
Newly acquired forward Justin Hess (25, 2-3-5, 71), picked up from the Orangeville Flyers, of the OJHL, last week, will make his home debut in a Crunch uniform Friday night against the Rock.
The feisty 19-year-old picked up an assist and two minor penalties in Cochrane’s 3-1 win in Iroquois Falls Saturday night.
Fans attending Friday night’s game might see a few more new players in the Crunch lineup, as well.
Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard said: “We just made another trade Monday that should be announced sometime soon by the league. We will have two or three more moves done before the deadline, as well. We are looking to add one more veteran defenceman to get our Top 4 finalized. We have been struggling on the back end.”
Like Gagne, Leonard will be looking for his team to get off to a quick start Friday night to force the Rock to have to play catch-up hockey.
“One of our Achilles heels lately has been that we haven’t been a team that strikes first,” he said.
“You go back and look at that game against Timmins last week. It was kind of a back breaker to allow that first goal on a knuckler of a wrist shot that handcuffed our goalie. That’s a puck that needs to be stopped at this level.
“When a team sees that happen, it just deflates you, especially on the road when things aren’t going great.
“We are going to need a good, solid start Friday night. The same thing happened the other night here against Powassan. We played a solid 10 minutes of hockey and all of a sudden we let in a weak goal.
“It’s a psychological thing we have to get through as a hockey club, but I am not too worried. I think we are going to be in good shape.”
From the Crunch perspective, there will be no difference preparing for the Rock Friday night or the Voodoos on Saturday night.
“I think all three of our clubs are very similar,” Leonard said.
“We all have fast forwards, we can all have great goaltending when we need it and I think all three of our teams could be a little stronger on the back end.
“I think it will be a matter of whichever team’s offence shows up is going to be the team that wins.”
Leonard is confident the Crunch can come up with a much better effort Friday night than they did in their 5-2 loss on Nov. 23.
“We didn’t play a bad game last week,” he said.
“We had lots of shots, we outshot them 50-37, but they were scoring goals and we were just content getting off shots. Nobody was going into the dirty areas to finish off the plays and score goals.
“That was the difference. They were a little hungrier than we were in that game.
“It was our fifth game in nine nights, so maybe we were a little fatigued.”
Both the Rock and the Crunch are healthy heading into Friday night’s contest, but Cochrane will be without the services of forward Bailey Shaver, who will be serving the second and third games of the three-game suspension he picked up during the Crunch’s 6-1 home-ice loss to the Voodoos on Nov. 25.