A baptism by fire continues for the young Strathroy Rockets.
With just four returning skaters, defensemen Matt Laberge and Dalton Good along with forwards Kieran Milne and Lucas Latina, the inexperienced Rocket squad has endured a cavalcade of emotions early in the GOJHL Western Conference season.
Waiting for the ice to be put into their home rink, West Middlesex Memorial Centre, the Rockets once again began the season by playing five games on the road. After a 9-2 wake-up call loss to Guelph and a rare 0-0 double overtime draw with Thorold, the Rockets headed into Leamington to play the two-time defending Bill Weir Cup champs. The Rockets were rattled with a dominating 5-1 setback to the powerful Flyers.
They then earned a 5-4 overtime win in Forest spoiling the Lambton Shores Predators’ home opener for their first win of the season.
Next up was a trip to LaSalle at the Vollmer Recreation Centre. The Rockets raised a few eyebrows with a gutsy 4-3 win. It was just their second win in LaSalle in the last 4 seasons and just their fifth in seven years.
Finally it was time for their double home-opener weekend with rematches against the powerful first place Flyers and the struggling Lambton Shores Predators.
The Rockets kicked off Saturday by hosting their second annual “Rocket Launch” at the WMMC with fun activities with their fans including giant road hockey games, skill competitions, dressing room tours, face painting, autographs, poster making and pizza! Hundreds of youngsters showed up for the successful event.
The Flyers once again demonstrated why they are the early favourites for their third consecutive title with a solid 5-3 win. The Flyers lead 4-0 heading into the final period. The Rockets outscored the Flyers 3-1 in the final frame as they seemed to begin to look a little more comfortable on their tiny ice.
Oddly the visiting Flyers had more veterans familiar with the tight confines of the WMMC than the hometown Rockets. Leamington plays on a 200’ x 100’ Olympic-sized ice surface while the Rockets play on a very small 184’ x 80’ rink.
The Rockets struggled greatly with the tiny ice surface. The Flyers employed a strong forecheck and were very successful clogging up the neutral zone and erected a wall across their blueline courtesy of likely the strongest defensive crew in the West. Veterans Jacob McGhee and J.P. Grineau led a powerful defensive squad. McGhee and Grineau are the most experienced veteran defensemen in the Western Conference leading all returning defensemen in career games played.
Grineau, Cale Phibbs, Luke Sanko, Travis Campbell and Mark Gangnon took care of the scoring for the Flyers. Rookie Gangnon has been impressive scoring 7 goals and 10 points in 7 games this season. He leads all Flyers in scoring. Gangnon finished second in scoring last season with the Great Lakes Jr. C loop.
Rookies Max Ewart, Matt McGhee and Codey McRoberts replied for the Rockets. Ewart has been a bright spot in the early going for the Rockets. The Mount Brydges native has tallied three goals and has been a high energy effervescent sparkplug for the Rockets igniting their attack.
One bright spot this season for the Rockets has been goaltending. The Rockets returned both netminders from last season, Mat Ouellet and Dane Gubbels. The Rockets will need stellar goaltending every night if they wish to compete at a competitive level.
Although the shots were even at 40-40, the scoring chances were not. Ouellet was called upon many times against the Flyers to come up with a huge save. He was particularly effective turning aside three shorthanded Flyer breakaway opportunities.
The Rockets poor powerplay continued to plague them. They were unsuccessful in 5 opportunities while the Flyers clicked twice on 4 chances. Grineau scored the prettiest goal of the night when he slipped in undetected from his point position and converted a cross ice pass from five-year veteran Mitch Amante on a Flyer powerplay for the opening goal of the game.
The win improved the Flyers record to 6-1. They sit comfortably in first place.
The attendance was a disappointing 365 for the Rockets’ home opener.
Sunday night the Rockets had a rematch with the Lambton Shores Predators.
When Latina scored at 2:11 of the opening period it marked the first time in seven games this season that the Rockets had tallied a first period goal.
Although the Rockets led 4-1 by 14:59 of the second period it was actually the Predators who carried the play to the Rockets and if not for the solid goaltending of Gubbels, the Rockets would have likely found themselves in deep trouble.
With the match tied at 1-1 in the opening period, Gubbels was forced to stop Predator scoring leader Ethan Safarti on a penalty shot after the sharpshooter was cut down to the ice by Rocket captain Laberge on a breakaway. Safarti leads all Western Conference players in scoring thus far this season.
Gubbels also was successful on three other Predator breakaway chances.
The Rockets led 2-1 after one period and 4-2 after two periods and hung on for a 4-3 win.
Final shots favoured the Rockets 45-37. Rookie Tyler Caruana, in his first start of the season, was impressive in his first outing for the Preds.
The Predators certainly deserved a better fate than the 4-3 loss, especially after coming off of a 10-1 drubbing to the London Nationals and a 4-3 setback to the St. Marys Lincolns, who captured their first win of the season earlier in the week. The loss extended the Preds’ losing streak to 4 games.
Safarti, captain Ryan Fraser and David Norris scored for the Preds. Fraser’s goal at 9:27 of the third period on a powerplay nearly completed the Predator comeback and foreshadowed a wild, exciting finish as the Rockets barely held on for the win.
Impressive Shane Bulitka, a second round OHL pick by the Sudbury Wolves, scored his first goal for the Rockets while veterans Milne and Latina with a pair, rounded out the scoring for the Rockets.
The Rockets finally kicked their powerplay into gear scoring twice on six chances while the Preds converted just one of four chances.
A sparse, but enthusiastic gathering of 211 fans enjoyed the game.
Despite a 3-3-1 record the Rockets sit in a three-way tie for second place with LaSalle and St. Thomas five points below front-running Leamington.
London trails Strathroy, LaSalle and St. Thomas by just a single point while Chatham, Sarnia and Lambton Shores sit a dangerous two-points back.
Other than Leamington’s powerful start there appears to be a great deal of parity as the teams jockey for position early in the season.
The Rockets will be idle this week until they host the improved St. Marys Lincolns this Saturday.
Western Conference action this week:
Wednesday – LaSalle at London
Thursday – London at Leamington, Lambton Shores at Sarnia
Friday – LaSalle at St. Thomas, Sarnia at St. Marys
Saturday – St. Thomas at Lambton Shores, St. Marys at Strathroy
Sunday – Leamington at LaSalle, London at Chatham