By Thomas Perry, The Daily Press (Timmins)
TIMMINS – Wayne Mathieu’s second goal of the game lifted the Timmins Rock to a 3-2 overtime win over the Cochrane Crunch in Game 6 of their NOJHL East Division semifinal series.
It also propelled the Rock to a 4-2 series victory and a date with the Voodoos in the East Division final, schedule to get underway Friday at the Powassan Sportsplex.
Like three of the previous four games in the series, the Rock spotted the Crunch a two-goal advantage and then rallied to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Crunch jumped out to a 2-0 lead Tuesday night despite the fact they were missing three of their top snipers — Rock-killer Konnar Dechaine (serving the first game of a four-game suspension), Brandon McReynolds (injured) and Justin Hess (serving the second game of a two-game suspension).
Timmins goalie Albert Rogers played arguably his best game in a Rock uniform Tuesday night, coming up with a number of key saves to keep his team in the game when they trailed by two goals.
“I have played a lot of big games in my life, going back to prep school, but this is definitely the best team game I have ever been involved in,” he said.
“I have never been part of such a tight series like this. It was an incredible experience and I am glad we came out on top.”
The Timmins goalie was impressed with his counterpart, Leighton Williams, at the other end of the rink.
“You have to give it to him, he is a great goalie,” Rogers said.
“There were a lot of chances where our guys would walk out and he would have to make big save after big save. He did his job to the best of his abilities and I have to commend him for that. He played a great series.”
Rogers was confident, even when the Rock trailed by a pair of goals, that they would rally and pull out the win.
“The past few games that we had won, we had actually come back in them,” he said.
“Our mentality was to keep pushing and keep pushing and I knew eventually the goals would come. I knew once we got that first one the building would be rocking.”
Rogers was impressed with the play of the Rock D-men and backchecking forwards.
“They played really strong in front of me and they let me see the shots,” he said.
After a scoreless first period, Kyle Herbster struck for his first goal of the playoffs, a power-play marker, at the 14:24 mark of the middle frame.
Herbster was able to pounce on the puck on the play after teammate Braeden Cross fanned on a shot attempt.
Then, just over four minutes later, Crunch forward Bailey Shaver cut around a Rock defender and put a shot over the left shoulder of goalie Albert Rogers and just under the crossbar from an almost impossible angle for his first goal of the playoffs.
“He just made a great shot,” Rogers said.
“I felt like I had cut off the angle pretty well, but you have to give him credit.”
The Rock continued to struggle in their efforts to generate any sustained pressure in the offensive zone early in the third period.
That changed, however, when Mathieu reached in with one hand on his stick to pock a rebound under Crunch goalie Leighton Williams for his second goal of the playoffs, with the Rock on the power play.
It had seemed up until that point that Williams was not going to be beaten on the night.
Mathieu’s goal elevated the noise level in the McIntyre Arena and inspired his teammates to increase the intensity of their forecheck and a minute-and-a-half later Stewart Parnell drilled a wrist shot past Williams for his fifth goal of the playoffs to tie things up at 2-2.
Both teams had some excellent scoring opportunities in the final six-and-a-half minutes of the third period, but Rogers and Williams each came up with a number of stellar saves to keep the game deadlocked.
Again, early in the first overtime period the teams exchanged scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity, but the netminders held serve.
Finally, at the 12:22 mark of the first overtime period, Mathieu converted a cross-crease pass from linemate Jordan Rendle to win the game and end the series.
“By far, that’s the biggest goal of my Junior ‘A’ hockey career,” Mathieu said.
“Rendle came out of the corner, I lost my man and he made a nice feed to me and I just couldn’t miss. The puck was right there. I was just concentrating on trying to get the shot on net because there was a stick close to me and it went in bottom corner, to the goalie’s left.”
The Rock coaching staff had a simple message for the players during the intermission between the third period and the start of overtime.
“They just told us to stick to our program,” Mathieu said.
“The boys came out hard in overtime. We dug ourselves a hole in the second, but at the start of the third period we came out and played our game.”
Mathieu agreed the Rock hard to work hard to come out on the winning end of the series.
“They played well and we played well,” he said.
“One team had to come out on top in the end and I am glad we did.”
Rock coach and general manager Paul Gagne agreed his squad was not at its sharpest early on.
“We were almost nervous, especially during the first six minutes of the game,” he said.
“They already had five shots and we just had one. We weren’t clicking and it looked like we weren’t in sync.
“Then, in the second period, we didn’t have any zip whatsoever.
“Rogers really kept us in the game. He played extremely well.
“There is an old saying, ‘A two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey.’ We proved it tonight.”
You could argue after this series, that saying should be updated to: “A two-goal deficit is the best deficit in hockey.”
“There is just no doubt in our dressing room right now,” Gagne said.
“Our players just believe. They are not ever worried, at all.”
The coach could clearly see a swing in momentum in the third period, even before Mathieu’s scored his first goal to get the Rock back into the game.
“We made a couple of changes to our lines and (Cory) Sprague made a big difference,” Gagne said.
“Right from his first shift in the third period, he was a little spark plug. He made things happen on the forecheck. He was aggressive and he got things going.”
The coach continues to be impressed with the improved marksmanship of Parnell since the playoffs have begun.
“He comes to play every night and he works hard at every practice,” Gagne said.
“He has got some little bumps and bruises, but he never complains. He comes through with some big goals.”
Brendan Campbell had another strong game on the Rock blue-line Tuesday night.
“He did a solid job defensively and offensively he was moving the puck right away,” Gagne said.
“He was really strong in the third period.”
The Crunch may have lost Tuesday night’s game and the series, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort.
“When you are missing three of your top forward s and you still battle the way we did tonight, it says a lot,” said Crunch coach and general manager Ryan Leonard.
“We outshot them 18-4 in the second period and we were working hard. It was awesome.
“It was just a game of bounces tonight. The power-play goal they got, we thought our goalie had it, but the hockey gods just weren’t with us. It didn’t matter how hard we were working, nothing was going our way.
“It sucked tonight not having McReynolds or Dechaine, or Hess, because I think it might have been a different result if we had those three guys in the lineup.
“I am really proud of the guys in our room who battled so hard tonight. I really feel bad for the kids who worked so hard.
“Leighton Williams was our MVP in the playoffs and Connor Lovie was stellar back on defence. Joseph Thielen and Taylor Armbruster played their hearts out tonight.”
Leonard was impressed with the crowd the Rock got for all three of their home games during the series.
“Who wouldn’t want to play in a city like this, with crowds like that?” he said.
“The Rock players were just feeding off the energy once they scored. They were loud and they were passionate. It seemed like everybody had an air horn.
“That’s what an atmosphere is supposed to be like for Junior ‘A’ hockey. The Rock fed off it for the whole series.”
Leonard was also happy to see so many Cochrane fans in attendance at the McIntyre Arena for Tuesday night’s contest.
“They had a chant going and they were screaming, ‘Go Crunch, go,’” he said.
“It is the same group of 200 to 250 fans who showed up all year to support us in Cochrane. The boys really appreciated it.”
Leonard feels the Rock have a solid chance against the Voodoos, even though Powassan iced the top team in the NOJHL during the regular season.
“I am really pulling for Timmins to win it the way the fans come out to support this team,” he said.
“I know this is Paul’s last year, so hopefully he can go out with another championship. As much as we go at each other all year, I have a lot of respect for him.”
Leonard feels the Rock will match up well against the Voodoos.
“If they forecheck the crap out of Powassan like they did against us, I can’t see them not winning the series,” he said.
“The Voodoos are similar to our team. They have a lot of skilled perimeter players in the (Andy) Bakers, the (Gary) Mantzs. They don’t go out there and score the dirty goals. They are just pure goal scorers, whereas you watch the Rock and you will see a different team in the playoffs than they were in the regular season.
“In the regular season, they were perimeter scorers just like the rest of us, but in the playoffs they got dirty early. We didn’t learn how to play playoff hockey until after Game 3.
“That was the difference in this series. If they play the way they played against us today, I think the Voodoos are going to have their hands full.”
As intense as the series was, there were plenty of heartfelt hugs when the players lined up to shake hands following the conclusion of the series.
Up front, the Crunch will lose Dechaine, Shaver, Cross, McReynolds and Nate Viberg, as well as Armbruster on the blue-line and Williams in net, as they will all be too old to return for the 2017-18 campaign.
Rogers stopped 34 of the 36 shots he faced to earn the victory for the Rock.
Williams turned aside 34 of the 37 shots the Rock fired his way and was tagged with the loss for the Crunch.
NOJHL NOTES — The Daily Press Three Stars of the Game were Mathieu, Parnell and Rogers, with Williams getting honourable mention … The Rock were 1-4 on the power play, while the Crunch were 1-3 with the man advantage … Official attendance at the McIntyre Arena was 1,319 … Tuesday’s other contest saw the Beavers blank the Rayside-Balfour Canadians 1-0 in Blind River to win their best-of-seven West Division semifinal series 4-3 … The Rock will travel to Powassan for Game 1 of the East Division final against the Voodoos at the Sportsplex Friday night.