Two weeks previously the Strathroy Rockets stunned the London Nationals with a 4-0 shutout at the Western Fair Community Centre. It was the Rockets only win over a dreadful 16-game skid.

Since then the Rockets top goaltender Mat Ouellet and leading scorer Riley O’Connell bolted to Junior C in Mount Forest. So much for putting an “A” on O’Connell’s sweater. Maybe the next time the Rockets will have the sense to have someone earn the “A” before they hand them out like Pez candies.

The Rockets’ first game since the Exodus of Ouellet and O’Connell along with the recent departure of Matthew McGhee saw the Rockets put in their finest sixty minutes of the season in a 6-3 win over the visiting LaSalle Vipers last Saturday at the WMMC in Strathroy.

That feat could not be replicated in a 3-1 loss to the Nationals.

It has been “close but no cigar” for the Rockets. The last four Rocket losses have all been by 3-1 scores. (Sarnia, St. Thomas, Chatham and London)

The very, very important two points that the Nationals (15-7-3-1) picked up moved them into a three-way tie for second place with St. Thomas (16-7-1-1) and Chatham (16-8-1-1). All three clubs trail front-running Leamington (19-4-0) by 5 points.

In the only other action Wednesday night the Maroons were upended 5-3 by the LaSalle Vipers (14-9-3-1). The win snapped a 15-game domination by the Maroons over the Vipers and ended a 5-game Chatham winning streak. The win inched LaSalle closer to the logjam at second place. The Vipers trail the power trio by just 2 points.

The Rockets lacked the intensity that they found in their win over LaSalle. The opposition goaltending didn’t help their cause either. Zack Weir was nearly perfect turning aside 45 of 46 Rocket shots. It was retribution for the London netminder as Weir suffered the 4-0 loss to the Rockets two weeks earlier. He was given the hook after two periods. No hook was required on this night.

His counterpart in the opposite end of the ice, Dane Gubbels, had a stellar game as well. He put his club in a position to win, but once again the sputtering Rocket offense gave their goaltender very little in the way of goal support.

Unlike the Rocket game against the Vipers, where they employed a very successful “dump and chase game” that forced the Viper defense to turn and make decisions with and without the puck, the Rockets put in likely their most confused effort of the season on the big Olympic-sized ice pad.

The Rockets for some strange reason refused to dump the puck but elected to try to skate through the entire National team. Most players make a beeline for the open ice, create themselves some space and try to hit an open teammate for a pass. Not the Rockets. Even Wayne Gretzky didn’t try to skate through a team. He would head to the open ice and find a teammate with a pass.

It was a baffling effort from the Rockets. I can’t help but think that better usage of the huge ice by the Rockets might have found them with a different result.

The Nationals played a nice patient game. They stuck to their positions, kept the Rockets to the outside and waited for turnovers – and there were plenty of those. A number of the Rocket shots were from the outside and many were right at the London keeper.

Speaking of plenty – the Nationals gave the Rockets plenty of chances on the powerplay. Too bad the Rockets have the second worst powerplay in the entire 26-team GOJHL. The Rockets did convert once in eight opportunities but could have iced the game easily with more proficiency with the man advantage. They wasted a pair of two-man advantages that could have easily turned the contest into their favour.

Both teams manufactured 12 powerplay shots on goal but the problem here was that the Rockets had 8 powerplays, including the two two-man advantage situations, while the Nationals had only 3 powerplays on the night.

Final shots favoured the Rockets 46-36. It marked the first time this season that the Rockets outshot their opponent and failed to win.

It was tough to get a handle on this game from a Rocket perspective and perhaps I am expecting too much from a team that is at a drastic disadvantage from a skill perspective on most nights.
The Nationals are a frustrating bunch too. They only seem to exert enough effort to win a game instead of burying their opponent. Their diligence seemed identical to the previous week’s effort, other than they got the solid goaltending to bail them out. That becomes a bad habit. They need to develop a killer instinct come playoff time or they will have a quick exit.

London for years has always cruised through the regular season without hardly breaking a sweat, then come the final couple of months, they turn on the switch and flip it into overdrive.

On this night the two clubs skated through a scoreless opening period. Poor first periods have plagued both the Rockets and the Nats. In the four games that the two teams have played against each other this season, both teams have managed only one first period goal each.

The closest anyone got was when Tanner Ferreira tattled a shot off the crossbar behind Gubbels. London outshot the Rockets 13-10 in the opening twenty minutes.

The tempo picked up considerably in the wide-open middle frame. Both clubs fired 19 shots on goal at the opposing goaltender, but it was the Nationals who scored twice.

Rai Di Loreto opened the scoring at 5:41. He rushed the puck straight up the middle. The Rocket defense of Dalton Good and Dante Copps just kept backing in on their goaltender and Di Loreto ripped a wrist shot past Gubbels’ trapper.

Seconds later the Rockets nearly tied the game if not for a desperate and unbelievable save from Weir. The puck deflected off of Callum Ruddock’s skate in front of the National goal right onto Max Ewart’s stick. Ewart one-timed his shot to the wide open side of the National goal just inside the goal post. Weir reached back with his stick knocking the puck out of mid-air and saving a goal. It will likely be the best save any of the 563 fans at the Western Fair will see this year at any rink.

At the tail end of a Rockets 5-on-3 advantage Scott Goodman jumped out of the penalty box and found himself with a clear path to the Rocket goal. A great stop by Gubbels prevented the shorthanded marker.

The Nationals did get that 2-0 bulge when sniper John Warren one-timed a shot just past the outstretched trapper of Gubbels at 11:02.

The Rockets poured on the heat in the third period outshooting the Nationals 17-4. The 4 National shots represent the fewest shots by a Rocket opponent in a period this season.

Rocket underage rookie Shane Bulitka, who had an outstanding game, nearly got the Rockets on the scoreboard when he swept around the Nationals’ defense forcing Weir to come up with an excellent stop.

The Rockets finally cut the lead in half at 6:24. It came on the powerplay with Kevin Madden off for hooking. A Steve Griggs shot through traffic from the high slot somehow bounced its way through and past Weir. It was a welcome relief for the diligent worker Griggs. It was his first goal of the season.

The Rockets pressed for the equalizer but could not find it.

At 16:06 the Nationals snuffed out the comeback when an excellent pass from newcomer John Adams spotted a pinching Ruddock for the coffin clinching back door play.

The Rockets pulled Gubbels for an extra attacker in the final 1:50 but were unable to register a shot on Weir thanks to some lovely defensive work by the Nationals.

Lucas Latina had another outstanding game for the Rockets. He registered 9 shots on goal and won many key faceoffs.

The Rockets won 47 of 84 faceoffs (54.3%). Griggs was tops for the Rockets winning 11 of 17 (64.7%) while Latina won 16 of 27 (59.3%)

The Rockets will host the St. Marys Lincolns (5-18-1-2) on Saturday at the WMMC. The Lincolns presently hold down the final playoff spot, 5 points below the seventh place Rockets and 1 point ahead of the last place Lambton Shores Predators (5-18-0-3).

London hopes that they have enough left in the tank to tangle with the first place Leamington Flyers the following night. (they didn’t – they lost 5-3)

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.

David Honsberger

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