Can the Strathroy Rockets contend for a GOJHL Western Conference championship?

Well, the question would have been an absurd one just a few short weeks ago. The Rockets were trying to deal with one of their most challenging seasons in franchise history. They painfully endured a 13-game winless stretch, their driest spell in the past 21 years. Out of the blue their top scorer, Riley O’Connell and the number one puck stopper, Mat Ouellet, bolted home to Whitby to play Junior C in Mount Forest.

It was the makings for a crash and burn season for the Rockets. However, like we so often see in sports, special teams have this inert ability to rally in the face of adversity.

Suddenly the Rockets started winning and were playing their most competitive hockey of the season. The GOJHL penalty leader at the time, Lucas Latina, found a new level of discipline. The penalty minutes drastically decreased and he found a new role for the hockey club – he was inspiring his teammates on the ice, on the bench and in the dressing room. It was an emotional thing to observe for Rocket supporters. He was literally asking the team to jump on his back as he would carry them over the finish line.

Many Rockets started to play their best hockey of the season. T.J. Harris came out of nowhere to become an offensive threat. He tallied 2 goals in a single period, the first time any Rocket player has done that feat this season.

The change was sudden and dramatic. The effort was always there. It has been there all season, but now the Rockets have raised the bar a few notches – well, several notches actually.

With a ton of rookies on the squad – 16 in fact – the experience of playing at this level was beginning to pay dividends. They were coming together as a team and learning and understanding what it takes to play at this level.

Since the departure of Ouellet and O’Connell, the Rockets have went 4-2-2. Previously the club had a dreadful 5-13-2-4 record. The Rockets are on a 4-game home point streak, not tremendously impressive, but it is their longest period of success at home all season.

A quick look at December will show some startling numbers. The front-running Leamington Flyers cruised through a perfect December winning all 6 matches for 12 points.

But whom do we see in second place?

Yes, it is the Rockets with 8 points by virtue of a 3-2-2 record. The Rockets have plenty of company with St. Thomas, London and Sarnia all earning 8 points as well.

Chatham and LaSalle are not far back with 6 points. St. Marys earned 3 and Lambton Shores two.

Although we are not suggesting that the Rockets should start planning a victory parade, there is very interesting indicators that the Rockets are not going to be a “push-over” after the Christmas break.

You just need to ask LaSalle, St. Thomas, Leamington and Chatham.

The Rockets doubled up the Vipers 6-3 and downed the Stars 5-3 while both the Flyers and the Maroons needed double overtime to wrestle the extra point away from the Rockets.

To truly contend, the Rockets are going to need to beef up their scoring. They average just 2.59 goals a game. They have shown steady improvement over the past three months inching up from 2.41 goals a game in October to 2.56 in November to 2.59 in December. It is still a long was off from where it needs to be. No Strathroy team has ever qualified for post-season action averaging less than 3 goals a game. This might be the year however as the Rockets, who presently sit in seventh place, lead eighth place St. Marys by 10 points and last place Lambton Shores by 12.

Their goals against has also shown improvement, and significant improvement since the departure of Ouellet and O’Connell. Averaging 3.82 goals against at the end of October, the Rockets trimmed it back very slightly to 3.80 goals against by the end of November, but showed a drastic improvement to 3.69 goals against by the end of December.

It is tribute to the stellar work of Dane Gubbels and newcomer Dan Davies in goal as well as a commitment by some very diligent back checking forwards and some tidier word by the Rocket defense.

The Rockets are winning more one on one battles for the puck and are doing a much better job of exiting from the zone and getting the puck in deep in the opposition’s defensive zone once they gain centre.

In the past few years lower ranked teams have made significant waves in the post season – a very different slant from just a few short years ago where the first or second place teams captured 19 of 21 championships.

Can anyone prevent the first place Flyers from capturing their third straight regular season and playoff titles? Maybe not. No one has shown any indication that they could beat the Flyers in a best 4 out of seven.

Can the Rockets improve on their seventh place seeding? Likely not. I can’t envision either St. Marys or Lambton Shores overtaking the Rockets from behind, nor can I see the Rockets catching the Sarnia Legionnaires (15-11-1-3) who sit in sixth place. After all, even with the Rockets’ solid 8 points that they earned in December, it was matched by the Legionnaires and Sarnia holds a very comfy 8-point lead on the Rockets.

There is still two months of action to try to overcome that 8-point deficit and anything could happen between now and the end of February.

There is a lot of veteran leadership in Sarnia. It all may hinge on how the Rocket rookies continue to develop. The Rockets’ special teams need to perform much better and they need to do a better job in the faceoff circle. Only Latina can be counted on consistently to win an important draw.

It is difficult enough to win a game at this level, especially for the Rockets when they are usually playing against a more experienced and skilled hockey club, when their opponent begins most plays with possession of the puck off of the faceoff.

That fact is heavily represented in shots on goal, were the Rockets have only outshot their opponents on six occasions this season, winning five of those matches. They can put a lot less burden on their netminders by making some adjustments on those shots on goal numbers.

Most teams have likely conceded first place to the Flyers. The race was for second with St. Thomas, Chatham and London presently as the top contenders. What was the reward for finishing in second place? A seemingly easy quarter-final matchup with the seventh seed, likely Strathroy. It doesn’t look like an easy first round series now. I do recall a seventh-seeded St. Thomas Star club a few years back that knocked off the second place Strathroy Rockets and then the first place London Nationals in the semi-finals. It was the first time in league history. Can history repeat itself?

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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