The LaSalle Vipers and the Strathroy Rockets continue to head in opposite directions.

The Vipers extended their winning streak to 4 games and their point streak to 5 games with a dominating 5-2 win over the visiting Strathroy Rockets at the Vollmer Recreation Centre in LaSalle in Western Conference action in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League on Wednesday. October 21, 2015.

The Rockets had surprised the Vipers with a 4-3 win in LaSalle on September 23 in the best game the Rockets had played this season. Strathroy has won just 5 games in LaSalle in the past 7 seasons.

As the Vipers continue to improve their record and move up in the standings, the Rockets extended their losing streak to 5 games dropping them deeper in the Western Conference standings.

Combined with the Sarnia Legionnaires’ (5-1-1) 7-4 win over the London Nationals (6-4-3-1) at the Western Fair, the Vipers (7-4-2-1) vaulted into sole possession of third place, one point below the second place St. Thomas Stars (8-2-1-1) and a point above the fourth place Nationals.

Sarnia, who was tied with the Rockets prior to Wednesday night’s action, took sole possession of fifth place, two points below London and two above the struggling Rockets (4-5-1-3).

The game was an exciting contest. The Vipers heavily dominated the first two periods outshooting the Rockets 28-13. If not for some very stellar goaltending by Rockets’ netminder Dane Gubbels the game would have been a rout.

Gubbels was the inspirational leader for the Rockets over the first 40 minutes. He was particularly sharp on a gorgeous tic-tac-toe play by the Vipers were he shut down Tyler Russell with a cross-crease save on a deadly back door play.

The Rockets nearly escaped the first period with a scoreless draw until James Brooks connected with his first of the season and his first of two on the night with 2:30 remaining in the opening period.

First periods and slow starts continue to plague the Rockets. They have scored just 6 first-period-goals in 13 games this season.

The goal came immediately following a vicious head check which went unpunished on Rocket rookie Max Ewart which sent him to the dressing room for repairs.

The Vipers extended their lead to 2-0 with a powerplay goal at 7:10 of the second period with Wesley Kelly off serving an invisible tripping penalty. The powerplay goal was a welcome relief for Viper head coach Bill Bowler. The Vipers had connected on just 7 of 82 chances or 8.5%, the second worst record in the GOJHL, entering the game.

Brooks added his second of the night at 16:38 of the middle frame capitalizing on an unfortunate clearing attempt by T.J. Harris in the Rocket slot in front of Gubbels.

Despite being down 3-0 entering the third period the young Rockets remained unfazed. They buzzed the Viper goal outshooting the Vipers 16-11 in the final period.

After Brooks was denied a hat trick by rattling a puck off the crossbar, the Rockets were rewarded for their efforts when Matt McGhee set up underage sensation Shane Bulitka as the side of the Viper goal at 9:53. The goal ruined Eli Billing’s shutout bid and gave the Rockets some hope for a third period comeback.

The Rockets have won just three third periods this season.

Jones appeared to put the game out of reach for the Rockets when he tapped in a loose puck in front of Gubbels at 14:35 after a bad giveaway at the Rocket blueline by Lucas Latina to give the Vipers a seemingly comfortable 4-1 lead.

However off the faceoff Rocket captain Matt Laberge anticipated a Clay Kraynack pass and fed Wesley Kelly for a quick wrist shot above the faceoff circle handcuffing Billing and cutting the Viper lead to 4-2 just 11 seconds later.

The Rockets would pull Gubbels in the final minute for an extra attacker. Manny Silverio found the empty net after some nice work by Eric Kirby on the sideboards to spring Silverio.

That was likely the biggest difference between the two teams. The Vipers consistently won the one-on-one battles for the puck. Their age and experience was a determining factor against the young, but energetic and hard-working Rocket club.
Very few penalties were called in the game by referees Ryan Renaud and Kyle Vermast. LaSalle converted 1 of three opportunities while the Rockets were unsuccessful in just two chances.

Both the Rockets and the Vipers showed drastic improvement in their play from their first meeting a month earlier. Despite the loss the Rockets’ passing and puck control was much better than in recent games.

The Vipers had practically no forecheck in the game, particularly in the third period as they tried to shut down the Rockets. They would often line up three forwards across the Rocket blueline with their defense standing on the Viper blueline. Overall the Rockets were fairly successful penetrating the Vipers’ neutral zone trap.

The Rockets will host the first place Leamington Flyers on Saturday at the WMMC before making their first visit of the year to Chatham to tangle with the rapidly improving Maroons.

The Vipers will head to St. Marys to play the Lincolns on Friday.

(play by play by Chris Soares, 105.7 myFM)

David Honsberger

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