THE TALE OF THE BLIND SQUIRREL
An old adage says, “Even a blind squirrel finds the odd nut.”
Well I’m not sure that the Strathroy Rockets are blind squirrels but the London Nationals surely must have felt that they were at the Western Fair Community Centre on Wednesday evening on November 18, 2015.
The Rockets, on a franchise worst winless streak in the past 21 years, a 13-game skid, saw it evaporate in a 4-0 shutout as they gathered their nuts and flipped their tails.
The Nationals wasted an excellent opportunity to gain a valuable two points in the tight Western Conference standings in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.
The National loss combined with the LaSalle Vipers’ 5-2 victory over the St. Marys Lincolns moved the Vipers into a three-way tie for second place with the Nationals and the idle St. Thomas Stars.
Both the Rockets and the Nationals have struggled with slow starts this season. London typically pours on the heat in the second period and buries their opposition.
Not on this night. The blind squirrels from Strathroy guarded their nest well.
The main guarder of the nest was Rocket netminder Mat Ouellet. Ouellet earned his second shutout of the season, both at the Western Fair. The Rockets and the Thorold Blackhawks played to a historic double overtime scoreless draw during the Showcase Weekend to begin the 2015-16 season. Ouellet has not allowed a goal at the Olympic-sized ice surface at the Western Fair in 130 minutes of action this season.
The Nationals outshot the Rockets 41-21, including a 15-4 advantage in the first period and a 12-4 advantage in the third period.
London was clearly the better team in the first period but seemed to lack the killer instinct to put the Rockets away.
It seems like it was just a matter of time until the Nationals broke the scoreless draw and started pouring the goals in past Ouellet.
It was then that the first Rocket pesky squirrel found a nut.
Skating in over the National blueline, at 2:14 of the second period, rookie Rocket left winger Codey McRoberts took a shot from well out that handcuffed London goaltender Zack Wier. Actually, Weir just whiffed on the shot. It was clearly one he should of had caught. The goal was like a lightning bolt up the squirrel’s tree and the Rockets started to play with a lot more confidence.
The same could not be said for Weir. He was clearly rattled by the scurrying Rockets, fumbling shots and looking very uncomfortable between the pipes.
When a routine wrist shot from Riley O’Connell after a horrible National turnover beat Weir the squirrels were up by a pair of nuts.
If the Rockets didn’t need any more confidence, the Rockets fourth line of callup Tristan Sedlak centering Matthew Stevens and Turner Balasin turned up the heat with some excellent shifts inspiring their fellow squirrels in the nest.
The Rockets’ new-look powerplay, which looked very similar to the LaSalle Viper powerplay with a man in front of the net and a second player in the high slot, went to work. Rookie sensation Shane Bulitka buried an O’Connell rebound with Callum Ruddock off for hooking to give the Rockets a 3-0 lead. It was O’Connell’s third point of the period, the most by any Rocket in a single period this season.
London’s frustration erupted following the Bulitka goal when Matt Doty jumped Jeff Williams in front of the net. Doty was assessed minors for cross checking and roughing as well as an inciting misconduct. Both Doty and Williams also received high sticking minors. Can’t say I agreed with the call. Both players clearly high sticked each other, however Doty just dropped his stick and gloves and starting pounding on Williams. Williams did not retaliate. In situations such as that the offending player typically receives minors for instigating and being the aggressor along with a major penalty for fighting. The Rockets should have had a nine-minute powerplay, but had to settle for four minutes.
Referee Ryan Van Heeswyk entered the game with one of the blackest shiners I have ever seen, so perhaps he couldn’t see the call. Don’t know what was referee Simon Couto’s excuse. Maybe he was checking out some good looking squirrels in the stands.
The Nationals replaced the shaky Weir for Connor Hughes in the third period but the damage was already done. Despite a very strong period by the Nats, the Rockets’ will and Ouellet’s superb goaltending would not break.
T.J. Harris clinched the victory with an empty net goal with 77 seconds remaining.
London dominated the faceoff circle winning 34 of 56 draws (61.7%). The Rockets went 1 for 5 on the powerplay. Despite the fact that the Nats had just four powerplay opportunities they had 11 powerplay shots on goal compared to just 5 for the Rockets. O’Connell and defenseman Noah Tooke led the Rockets with 3 shots on goal.
The 13-game winless streak was over. The Rockets had 12 losses, four of them in overtime, and a tie during the streak.
The Rockets will have little time to celebrate with a game at the Timkin Centre in St. Thomas the following night.
The Nationals were seen trying to kick squirrels while leaving the building.
David Honsberger is a former journalist and columnist for the Strathroy Age Dispatch. A winner of the Stuart Bolton Memorial Award for the Strathroy Rockets Volunteer of the Year in 1996, David served for seven years as the club’s president. He was honoured in 2015 when he was inducted into the Strathroy Rockets/Blades Wall of Fame in the builder category. David is currently in his 20th year of volunteering with the Rockets and provides the colour commentary for the Strathroy Rockets radio broadcasts on 105.7 my FM. He resides in Strathroy with his mother and his two cherished Savannah cats, Scout and Hey, Boo.