The visiting London Nationals (6-3-2-1) moved into a third place tie with the idle LaSalle Vipers (6-4-2-1) with a 3-2 regulation time decision over the slumping Strathroy Rockets (4-4-1-3) in front of 390 fans. The game was played at the West Middlesex Memorial Center on Saturday, October 17, 2015 in Western Conference action of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

The Nationals and the Vipers remain three points below the surging second place St. Thomas Stars (8-2-1-1) and three points ahead of the Rockets and the Sarnia Legionnaires (5-4-1-1).
The loss extended the Rockets’ losing skid to four games, albeit their previous three losses all came the way of overtime.

In the only other game Saturday night in the Western Conference, the first place Leamington Flyers (10-2-1-0) needed a goal by Luke Sanko with 54 seconds remaining in regulation time to secure a 4-3 win over the lowly (3-8-0-2) Lambton Shores Predators in Forest.

The Nationals-Rockets match was another lame affair highlighted by poor passing, disorganized defensive zone play and general chaos leading many observers to wonder if the quality of play and players now attracted to the GOJHL has been diminished. It certainly seems like it has. The talent pool has been reduced dramatically. The loss of the OHL 16-year-old draft and Grade 13 from the Ontario school system has had dramatic effects.

Teams no longer carry four underage undrafted players. OHL scouts used to flock to local rinks to scout up to eight undrafted players every game. Most of these talented and exciting players found their way to the OHL the following season. Teams now can sign only two underage players, many of which were drafted the previous season as 15-year-olds but failed to make their OHL club.

The loss of Grade 13 means that fewer and fewer skilled players remain in the league until they are 20 years of age hoping to catch the eye of a NCAA Division I school and a free education. NCAA scouts are very few and far between now in the GOJHL.

The entry level age for most players now is seventeen. These are players are in Grade 12 and often hang up their skates after one year in the league to pursue a post-secondary education.
The solution is not an easy one. The three Junior B leagues, the Golden Horseshoe, Midwest and West, amalgamated a few years ago to form the GOJHL in hopes of bringing back the glory years of Junior B. They have worked tirelessly in that regard with limited results.

The Nationals used some effective special teams work to dispose of the struggling Rockets scoring both a powerplay and a shorthanded marker. It was the first shorthanded goal of the season that the Rockets have surrendered.

The game did feature some solid goaltending from both netminders, Connor Hughes of the Nats and the Rockets’ Mat Ouellet. After alternating Ouellet with the very capable Dane Gubbels this season, the Rockets have started Ouellet in the last three contests, all of which are losses.

London was without their leading scorer, the talented John Warren and veteran and former Rocket Trevor Dulong. Dulong was suspended. Both players have OHL experience.

After sitting out the game in Sarnia on Thursday, Rocket leading scorer Riley O’Connell was back in the lineup. He was highly ineffective with very limited mobility and appeared in a lot of pain. He may have better suited to sit out another game and let the healing process continue.

The Rockets scored the only goal of the first period at 5:51 when Wes Kelly was set up in front of Hughes after a great solo rush along the right boards by Matt McGhee.

The Nats’ best chance in the opening period came from a shorthanded opportunity by Scott Dorion.

With the Rockets’ Jeff Clarke serving a head checking penalty, London tied the contest at 1:20 of the second period when Scott Goodman buried a shot after goaltender Ouellet’s mobility was minimized after being tangled up with extra bodies in his crease.

The Rockets retook the lead when hard-working Lucas Latina’s shot from the top of the faceoff circle fooled goaltender Hughes at 11:02. (Photo)

Both teams were down a man for the rest of the game when Rocket defenseman Dalton Good and National Tanner Ferreira were ejected for a brief bout.

Callum Ruddock picked up a slashing penalty on the same play. With Ruddock in the penalty box, a fanned one-timer by Rocket rookie defenseman Dante Copps sprung Matt Bean for a shorthanded opportunity. The National penalty killer barely outraced Copps to the loose puck and scored an electrifying goal when he managed to slip the puck past Ouellet after a diving shot attempt. The goal came at 16:25 tying the game at 2-2.

Before the Ruddock penalty ended Dorion had his second shorthanded opportunity of the game forcing Ouellet to come up with another fine stop.

The game winner came at 7:39 of the third period. A high pass from Latina to Rocket captain Matt Laberge at the Nationals’ blueline bounced off the rearguard’s shinpads springing Dorion with his third breakaway of the game. A quick shot to the top corner beat Ouellet sending the Nationals home with the win.

The Rockets pulled Ouellet for an extra attacker in the final 42 seconds but were unable to generate any scoring opportunities.

It will be a busy week for both teams.

The Rockets will travel to LaSalle on Wednesday before hosting Leamington on Saturday and traveling to Chatham on Sunday for their first meeting of the season with the Maroons.

The Nationals will be in St.Marys on Sunday before hosting Sarnia on Wednesday at the Western Fair and heading to St. Thomas on Friday.

David Honsberger

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