After a torturous first half of the 2015-16 season that saw the Strathroy Rockets struggle through a 13-game winless streak, their longest stretch in 21 years, the Rockets are starting to experience some success. Could they provide a stunning first round upset in late February? Not sure, but just ask the London Nationals, LaSalle Vipers, St. Thomas Stars and Leamington Flyers.

The Rockets blanked the Nats (16-9-3-1) at the Western Fair by a 4-0 score last month before doubling up the visiting LaSalle Vipers (15-11-3-1) 6-3 at the tiny WMMC in Strathroy. In back-to-back home games this weekend the Rockets staged a dramatic late third period comeback to steal two points from the second place Stars (18-9-1-1) with a 5-3 win at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre on Saturday night before earning a tough point in a 3-2 double overtime loss to the front-running Flyers (23-4-1-0) the following night.

Leamington has a comfortable first place lead, 9 points ahead of Chatham and St. Thomas, who both have identical 18-9-1-1 records.

London sits two points back in fourth place with LaSalle and Sarnia (15-10-1-3) nipping at London’s heels. The Vipers and Legionnaires trail the Nationals by just 2 points. That leaves just a 4-point spread among 5 teams from second to sixth place.

The Rockets (8-15-2-5) seem mired in seventh place. They trail Sarnia and LaSalle by a massive 11 points and lead the Lambton Shores Predators (6-22-0-2) by a seemingly comfortable 9 point margin. The Predators moved ahead of the St. Marys Lincolns (22-1-2-0) into the final playoff spot by one point with a 6-4 win over LaSalle on Saturday night. It was just the Predators second win at home this season.

If the Flyers can hold onto first place – and they have shown few reasons why they can’t – the race could very well be to finish in second. The top two seeds would play either Strathroy, Lambton Shores or St. Marys in the quarter-finals, while seeds 3, 4, 5 and 6 would battle it out among each other to advance to the semi-finals.

How big of a fight would the Rockets, Preds or Lincolns put up? Certainly no one would expect them to win. There would absolutely no pressure on them what so ever. The Preds have been the biggest underachievers in the West this season. If they get on a roll, look out, they could be very dangerous. The trip to Forest is a long and uncomfortable one, especially for LaSalle, Chatham or Leamington.

The Rockets have battled a lot of adversity. Recently they lost their top scorer, Riley O’Connell, and top goaltender, Mat Ouellet, to Junior C in Mount Forest. At about the same time their fourth leading goal scorer Matt McGhee decided to leave to focus his efforts on a golf scholarship.
Similar to last season where the Rockets dealt their captain Tyler Duarte to Leamington, the team has come together and played their best hockey of the season. Will beats skill, and the Rockets have displayed tremendous tenacity, a work ethic that is second to none and some outstanding goaltending. Can it win them a series? Just might. I’m sure it has some of the top clubs wondering if they really want to tangle in the tight confines of West Middlesex – a rink that more players in the Western Conference hate to play in more than any other.

Saturday at the WMMC the Rockets got on the scoreboard quickly against the Stars. Shane Bulitka, just back to the Rockets after a stay with the OHL Sudbury Wolves, outraced the Stars’ defense and potted a shorthanded goal just 94 seconds into the contest. Or did he? The Stars protested strongly that the puck did not cross the line. Rocket video was inconclusive. Bulitka cut across the front of the net from goaltender Nik Dampier’s right to left. Bulitka’s backhand seemed to hit the crossbar then fall behind a prone Dampier out of the sight line of the camera. What happened then? The Stars’ bench may have had the best angle on the play. The officials huddled and the goal was awarded. Apparently one official, a linesman, said he saw the puck cross the line.

Regardless the goal initiated a shower of stuffed toys on the Rockets annual Cuddy Farms Social Committee’s Teddy Bear Toss night. There must be a special connection with underage players and the Teddy Bear Toss. Fifteen years earlier, at the very first Cuddys’ Teddy Bear Toss, it was 15-year-old Kyle Wilson, a future NHLer, who netted the first goal. The same path may follow Bulitka, a second round pick of the Wolves and on many nights the best player on the ice.  The Teddy Bear Toss was the inspiration of Rocket equipment manager Joe Brooks, at the time, the vice president of the Rockets.

Bulitka, who will be the Rockets’ lone representative at the upcoming GOJHL Prospects Game in Guelph, was honoured as the Poag Jewelers’ Player of the Month for November prior to the game.

The Stars put in a better effort in the second period scoring three times and carried a 3-1 lead into the second intermission. Call-up Isaac McLean scored on a change of direction off of a faceoff win by call-up Kyle Dawson at 4:32.

Scoring leader Carson Brookshaw added a pair, the first on a powerplay at 7:14 and the second with an exhilarating shorthanded marker at 17:02. Brookshaw started the play with a huge shot block in the Stars’ defensive zone.

The game was a muddled, muddy, sloppy affair. The Stars seemed off kilter and despite the 3-1 lead really seemed to have problems getting on track.  That foreshadowed the events of the third period.

The Stars seemed to be losing control in the third period when Max Ewart cut the St. Thomas lead to 3-2 at 8:45 on the powerplay.

Things completely unraveled for the Stars in the final five minutes of regulation time. Lucas Latina scored on a wickedly deceptive backhand with 3:37 remaining in regulation time on another powerplay.

Steve Griggs tallied the game winner at 18:33 and Nick Griffin sealed the deal with the Rockets’ first empty netter of the season with 40 seconds remaining.

Shots favoured the Rockets 35-31. Oddly, special teams were the difference. It was odd in that St. Thomas with the 2nd best powerplay in the GOJHL only connected on 1 for 5 chances while the Rockets with the second worst powerplay in the league made good on 2 of 7 chances.  The Stars, who had won the first four meetings of the season between the two teams, had connected on 7 of 16 chances (43.8%) against the Rockets this season entering the game.

It was the first time in 16 outings that the Stars gave up a 3rd period lead and the first time in 14 games that the Rockets crawled back to win a game when trailing after two periods.

It was a completely different game when the first place Leamington Flyers rolled into town the next night.

The Flyers had taken their nasty pills prior to puck drop. Both teams combined for 15 penalties in the first period. There were only five penalties in the rest of the game. Had the Rockets’ powerplay been clicking the game may have been over in a hurry, however, they were quite inept and the Flyers’ penalty killing was stellar. It took five powerplays before the Rockets registered their first powerplay shot on goal.

Latina set the stage when he opened the scoring just 8 seconds into the game. The Flyers won the faceoff at centre ice and my favourite defenseman J.P. Grineau accidently turned the puck over to Latina. He raced in and beat Michael Barrett with a shot to the top corner glove side. The goal beat the Rockets’ previous franchise record of 10 seconds set by Joey Pikul against Leamington on October 24, 2003.

It was only the sixth first period lead the Rockets have had this season.

Tensions hit a fever pitch when Rocket Jeff Williams butt ended David Story drawing a match penalty. Williams will be suspended a minimum of 4 games.

Zach Guilbeault was sent to the showers for a check from behind call and then argued with the referee drawing a 2-game suspension.

The score was tied at 2-2 after two periods. The Flyers took the lead on a pair of goals by Aaron Langlois. His first goal should have been whistled down for either a Flyer icing which was missed or for an offside. Langlois’ second goal came off of a faceoff on a Rocket icing that should not have been called. The puck clearly changed direction after hitting Matthew Opblinger’s stick in the neutral zone.

Langlois’ two goals came 2:24 apart at 7:24 and 9:48.

Latina notched his second of the night powering his way to the side of the Flyer goal and lifting a backhand past Barrett at 17:53. It was Latina’s third 2-goal game of the season, tops for the Rockets. Nine of 10 Latina goals this season have come at home. Latina was also stellar in the faceoff circle winning 27 of 44 draws for 61.4%. The Rockets held a slim 65-62 advantage in the faceoff circle. Latina and Laberge led the Rockets with 5 shots on goal.

Latina has clearly emerged as the Rockets’ leader. He literally carries this team on his shoulders. His inspired play lifts the Rockets’ morale. He has shown tremendous self discipline and has made a concerted effort to stay out of the penalty box. After leading the league in penalty minutes for most of the season, he has now dipped to third place. We might have another Stan Mikita on our hands here. The Chicago Blackhawk legend went from being the NHL’s bad boy to a Lady Byng winner. Time will only tell but there is a lot of similarities between Mikita and Latina’s play. They are both fearless warriors with a never say die tenacity.

Flyer captain Mitchell Amante was the overtime hero. He raced in alone on Rocket goaltender Dane Gubbels after Rocket captain Matt Laberge fell in the neutral zone with 49 seconds remaining in the second overtime period picking the top corner glove side.

The Rockets are 1-5 in overtimes this season and lead all Western Conference teams in overtime losses.

The Rockets and the Flyers both had a goal disallowed.  Flyer Mark Gangnon had his second period goal waved off for deliberating kicking the puck in the net while Rocket Matthew Stevens also had his goal wiped out.  No announcement was made as to why the Stevens goal was disallowed.  It was a heartbreak for Stevens and the Rockets.  It would have been Stevens’ first goal of the season and the potential game winner in the scoreless third period.

Gubbels was the real star of this game. The Flyers outshot the Rockets 59-27 including a 12-2 advantage in overtime and a 25-7 advantage in the second period. It is the most shots the Rockets have allowed in a game this season. Over the final two periods and overtime Gubbels and the Rockets were outshot 51-16. Five of the Flyers 10 powerplay shots in the game came on a 4-on-3 powerplay in overtime when the Rockets were caught with too many men on the ice.

The Rockets had 6 powerplay shots on goal.

The Rockets poor powerplay cost them dearly. They went 0 for 9 with the man advantage including 3 five-on-threes. The Flyers were 0 for 5.

Rocket defenseman Dante Copps had an outstanding game for the Rockets.

It was likely the most exciting and entertaining game of the season. Sadly only 221 fans were on hand to witness the event.

The Rockets have two games remaining prior to the Christmas break, Friday in St. Marys and Saturday at home hosting Chatham.

The Flyers will welcome Lambton Shores on Thursday before traveling to St. Thomas the following night.

(photo credit – Colleen Wiendels Photography – Strathroy Rockets facebook – Mitch Amante double overtime winner)

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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