Earlier in the week the struggling Strathroy Rockets, winners of just one game in their previous 16 matches, heard the bad news that their top goal scorer and scoring leader Riley O’Connell along with top netminder Mat Ouellet had packed up their gear and headed home to Whitby.
Many hockey pundits felt that the Rockets would likely crash and burn. However, last year another struggling Rocket club traded away their captain Tyler Duarte to Leamington for a considerable amount of cash and an underage player card. In a similar fashion, most folks thought the Rockets would descend into a downward spiral of death. Instead, the club quickly came together, and went on a tear with a very strong second half.
It’s too early to tell how this young fragile Rocket club is going to respond this year, but early indications show that there is a considerable amount of hope that this season is not lost to them.
In fact, they may have just turned the corner.
Just ask the LaSalle Vipers.
The Vipers felt the wraith of the Rockets as they suffered a 6-3 loss in the most dominating performance by the Rockets this season.
The Rockets improved their record to 6-13-2-4 remaining in seventh place, 7 points behind sixth place Sarnia (11-10-1-2) and five points up on eighth place St. Marys (5-18-1-2).
The fifth place Vipers dropped to 13-9-3-1, five points ahead of Sarnia and 2 points below third place Chatham (15-7-1-1) and London (14-7-3-1).
The Rockets have won two of three games against the Vipers this season. A fourth game ended in a double overtime draw.
The six goals the Rockets scored in the game are the most by the Rockets in a single game this year. The win also ended a 7-game winless streak at home.
Did the Vipers take the Rockets too lightly? After all they had won just 5 games all season and were on track for one of the worst seasons in franchise history. However, the Rockets had upended the Vipers earlier in the season on their home ice at the Vollmer Recreation Centre. Head coach/GM Bill Bowler is not the type of bench boss to not have his team prepared for a game. But we are dealing about kids here. Sometimes that message has problems getting through.
It should be getting through crystal clear now.
In all honesty, both of these clubs struggle on the other team’s ice. The Rockets have won just 5 games in LaSalle in the past 7 years, while the Vipers have also won just 5 games in Strathroy at the tiny West Middlesex Memorial Centre in the past 7 campaigns.
On this night in question there was no denying the Rockets. They excelled at every aspect of the game while the overwhelmed Vipers were simply, quite horrid.
The diligent Rockets out skated, out hustled, out checked, out hit and out played a rather disinterested Viper squad.
Three Rocket goals were unassisted and the direct result of glaring Viper turnovers. To politely put it, veteran netminder Paolo Battisti did not have a good night. In all honesty, as I’m sure he would admit it, he was horrid. If Eli Billing had started, the game may have had a different outcome. But on this night, not even Patrick Roy in goal for the Vipers may have made a difference.
The game also marked the return of Rocket forward Nick Griffin. The speedster had been absent from the Rockets’ 7 previous games. There were countless rumours of his absence – school, work, disinterested. Regardless of his reasons, he was back and that was of immense importance for the Rockets. His return combined with the departure of Ouellet and O’Connell also raised some questioning eyebrows. He along with Kieran Milne and Lucas Latina are the only returning forwards from last year’s club.
Griffin had a stellar game. The spark plug had a goal and an assist, contributed five shots on goal and was a +4 on the night. His return was also a shot in the arm for the Rocket penalty killing. He is easily the fastest skater and hardest worker on the club.
The comedy of errors for the Vipers started early. Netminder Battisti tried to pounce on a loose puck at the side of his goal. He missed. An opportunistic Milne tallied on an easy empty net wrap around goal at 4:56 to give the Rockets an early 1-0 lead.
With Rocket rookie Jeff Clarke in the penalty box late in the period for a head checking call, Max Ewart poked the puck loose from the usually dependable Manny Silverio in the Rocket defensive zone and outraced Connor Matton and out muscled Kyle Auger to the puck, beating Battisti with a wrist shot for the Rockets’ first shorthanded marker of the season.
First period shots were 15-14 for the Rockets.
The two first period goals must have felt like 20 for the Rockets. They have had horrendous first periods scoring just 10 times this season in the opening period. It was only the fourth time this season the Rockets have headed into the first period intermission with a lead.
The Rockets increased their lead to 3-0 when Griffin and Shane Bulitka connected on a two-on-one at the two-minute mark. Griffin made contact with Bulitka’s pass and tapped his own rebound into an empty cage.
Nolan Gardiner got that one back for the Vipers just 36 seconds later finding the top corner behind Dane Gubbels on a deadly backhand to cut the Rocket lead to 3-1.
Milne increased the Rocket led to 4-1 when Viper defender Brett Banwell “passed” the puck to Milne in front of a helpless Battisti at 6:34. The unassisted goal, his second of the game, turned out to be the game winner.
Tyler Russell thought he had brought the Vipers back to within a pair, but his goal was waved off for a dislodged net.
Moments later with Griffin in the penalty box for roughing, Nathan Savage converted a rebound on a Viper powerplay as LaSalle worked a three-on-one chance in tight on the Rocket tender to bring the score to 4-2.
Second period shots were even at 12-12.
Latina put the Rockets up 5-2 at 7:04 of the third period beating Battisti with a shot from a very poor angle on a Rocket powerplay with Savage off for roughing after the whistle.
The Rockets rolled over the Vipers for the next few minutes hitting the crossbar and rattling two more pucks off of the goal posts including a breakaway from Steve Griggs.
Banwell fired a blast from the point for his first career Viper goal while the two teams were playing four-on-four. It was the fifth goal surrendered by the Rockets in four-on-four situations this season. The Rockets have scored just once this season playing four-on-four. The Banwell goal cut the lead to 5-3.
Rookie Turner Balasin iced the game for the Rockets at 15:12 with another unassisted goal. He intercepted a very poor Connor Rosaasen neutral zone pass and beat Battisti with a shot that the talented netminder would stop on most nights.
Third periods shots favoured the Rockets 9-8. The shots were even after sixty minutes 35-35.
Gubbels was solid in goal for the Rockets. He was under the most pressure during Viper powerplays including a 39-second two-man advantage. The Vipers finished the night with 16 powerplay shots on goal. The Rockets had just 2 powerplay shots on goal.
LaSalle finished 1 for 7 with the man advantage. The Rockets were 1 for 5.
Milne led all Rockets with 6 shots on goal.
The Rockets also dominated in the faceoff circle winning 55 of 92 draws (59.8%). Latina was tops for the Rockets winning 16 of 24 faceoffs (66.7%). He was most proficient in the Rockets’ defensive zone winning 6 of 7 faceoffs. Besides Latina’s goal and his great faceoff work, the GOJHL penalty leader showed a great deal of discipline in a chippy game and stayed out of the penalty box displaying what a useful and effective player he really can be.
The Rockets were without the suspended Matthew Stevens while the Vipers were missing Michael Ruttinger, Dalton Langlois and Nathan Veres, their only returning defenseman and team captain who has been injured since the second game of the year.
Both clubs will see action on Wednesday. The Rockets will try to ride their new wave of success in London while the Vipers will try to regroup when they host Chatham.
(photo – Lucas Latina celebrates fifth Rocket goal.)
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.