It was a confounding night in Strathroy. I must admit that the Lambton Shores Predators vexed me with conundrums.

The previous night, Friday, January 22, the Preds travelled to St. Marys to play the Lincolns. The two clubs were tied for eighth place and the final playoff spot.

A powerplay goal by Graham Brulotte with 58 seconds remaining in regulation time gave the Lincolns sole possession of eighth place and dropped the Predators into last place.

Lambton Shore’s best chances for points would be their final meeting with St. Marys on February 19 and two games against the seventh place Strathroy Rockets.

The Predators rolled into Strathroy the following night and I expected the Preds to explode out of gate like a whirlwind of fire.  Instead, they were as flat as the proverbial pancake and seemed completely disinterested with no sense of urgency.

It took 12 minutes for them to register their first shot on goal. By then the Rockets had 14 shots and were leading 1-0.
Steve Griggs opened the scoring on a powerplay at 5:32 when his goalmouth pass hit a Predator and deflected past a helpless Keegan Paulette in the Predator goal.

T.J. Harris scored at 15:39, knocking in his own rebound, to give the Rockets a comfortable 2-0 first period lead. They outshot the Preds 21-6.

When Lucas Latina scored at 1:32 of the second period on a nice give and go with Nick Griffin, the Rockets seemed to be in complete control.

Then they ran into penalty trouble. It breathed life into the Predators. The Rockets ran off 7 straight minor penalties. Ben Woo tallied his second goal of the season on a Predator powerplay at 12:33 to cut the lead to 3-1.

Lambton Shores outshot Strathroy 19-14 in the middle frame, including 14 shots on the powerplay.

The second period was highlighted by a pair of remarkable saves by Paulette and Rocket netminder Dane Gubbels. Gubbels denied Gino Mini with an electrifying glove save and went post-to-post to stop Andrew Kim. Paulette stopped Rocket scoring leader Shane Bulitka on a two-on-one shorthanded opportunity after a great pass from Max Ewart and then stopped Rocket defenseman Dante Copps on a clean cut breakaway after Copps had hopped out of the penalty box.

Bulitka returned the favour to Ewart just 46 seconds into the third period when he set up his left winger on a shorthanded chance to give the Rockets a 4-1 lead. It was Ewart’s second shorthanded goal of the season. Bulitka could very well be the best passer in the league.

Kim responded at 3:34 with a shorthanded marker for the Predators to cut the lead in half to 4-2 on a breakaway. Kim had a four-point night the previous evening in St. Marys with a pair of goals and two assists.

The Rockets outshot the Predators 20-10 in the third period and 55-35 over sixty minutes. The win snapped a five-game winless streak for the Rockets.

A slow start, quick Rocket goals to start the second and third periods and the Preds’ inability to capitalize on the powerplay destroyed their chances to make up any ground on the idle Lincolns. When Western Conference scoring leader Ethan Sarfati was ushered to the penalty box at 11:51 of the third period with a minor penalty for roughing and an abuse of officials misconduct the Predator’s fate was pretty much sealed.

They were never able to dig themselves out of the two-goal hole they put themselves into in the first period. They were able to match the Rockets goal-for-goal the rest of the way.

Lambton Shores went 1 for 8 with the man advantage, including a pair of two-man advantages for 49 and 55 seconds. They finished the night with 16 powerplay shots on goal.

The Rockets converted 1 of 5 chances on 12 powerplay shots on goal.

With one game to play in the season series the Rockets lead 4-0 with one game tied. Strathroy has won the season series over the Lambton Shores/Petrolia franchise for the past 12 years.

The game marked the first time this season that the Rockets had won a game by two goals and the first time that they had won a game allowing just two goals all season. In 2-goal decisions this year the Rockets are 1-8.

The win extended the Rockets home point streak to 8 games. That streak will be severely tested when they host London on Saturday and Sarnia on Sunday. On Friday the Rockets will travel to the Pryamid Recreation Centre to play the St. Marys Lincolns. It will mark the only time this season that the Rockets will play three games in three nights. I’m not sure how tired the players are going to be but it will darn near kill me.

Latina, who leads all Western Conference players in penalty minutes, picked up another 14 minutes. He sits fourth in penalty minutes in the entire GOJHL. Only Michael Levesque of the Chatham Maroons has more career penalty minutes than Latina in the Western Conference.

The assist that Bulitka earned on the Ewart shorthanded goal extended his point streak to 10 games. The underager is a second round draft pick of the Sudbury Wolves. He was rated the best passer and had the best vision of any player in last year’s OHL Priority Selection Draft. Strathroy’s franchise point streak record is held by Walter Easter at 23 games.

The Rockets won 53 of 100 draws (53%). Latina led the pack winning 14 and losing just 6 (70%).

Griggs, Bulitka and Ewart led all Rockets with 6 shots on goal. Griffin, Latina and Harris each had five while Turner Balasin, Rocket captain Matt Laberge and hustling defenseman Noah Tooke had four each. All of Tooke’s shots came in the first period.

Winger Wes Kelly, who usually patrols the right wing with Bulitka and Ewart on the Rockets’ top unit, was a scratch after an early exit from the game in Leamington on Thursday night. He was sent to the dressing room after a boarding call on Flyer captain Jacob McGhee at 6:08 of the first period. It is the first game that Kelly has missed this season.

The Predators have a busy week with three games. They host the London Nationals on Tuesday before heading to St. Thomas on Friday to play the Stars and welcome cross-county rivals, the Sarnia Legionnaires on Sunday in Forest at The Shores Recreation Centre, home of the best wedge fries in the league. That is worth the trip alone.

(photo credit – Colleen Wiendels Photography – Strathroy Rockets facebook)

David Honsberger

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