Entering Friday night’s game at the Pyramid Recreation Centre against the visiting Strathroy Rockets, the St. Marys Lincolns sat in a precarious but optimistic position. They led the last place Lambton Shores Predators by a narrow 2 points for the final playoff position in the Western Conference standings of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

The Lincolns’ opponent for the evening was the Strathroy Rockets, a team that sits just ahead of them in standings, but with a monstrous 15-point lead. The Lincolns have just 18 points on the season with 11 games to be played and realistically no chance of catching the Rockets, especially since half of the Lincolns’ points earned this season have come at the expense of the last place Predators.

In the five games that the two teams have played, the Lincolns have won four of them and lost the other in overtime to the Predators.

The Lincolns had not won a game against anyone other than the Predators since November 13. Their best chance to knock someone off, pick up a couple a points and distance themselves a little further from Lambton Shores would be a match against the Rockets, the only other team other than themselves and the Predators with a losing record in the Western Conference.

The previous matches between the Lincolns and the Rockets have been close. The previous three games all ended with identical 5-4 scores, with the Rockets winning two and two games ending in overtime.

The biggest task that Rocket head coach Brendan Riggin and his staff have is to motivate the rookie laden Rockets who have very little to play for with regards to their position in the standings. They are too far from both the Lincolns or Predators to realistically catch them and the Rockets trail the sixth place Sarnia Legionnaires by 10 points – a gap that the Rockets never seem to be able to shrink.

Every other team is playing a tight race for positioning or survival. The lethargic Rockets seem disinterested on most nights and appear as if they are just waiting for the season to end so they can play likely either London or Chatham in the quarterfinals, have a quick exit and forget this season.

The Lincolns looked ready to seize this opportunity – and they did. Backed by some outstanding netminding from Emanuel Vella, a third round pick of the London Knights, and a great team effort from the entire Lincoln squad, St. Marys blanked Strathroy by a 4-0 score.

Vella displayed a rapier-like glove hand in which he snared many dangerous Rocket shots labeled for the back of the net.

The last time the Lincolns had a shutout at home was on January 13, 2009 when Jesse Raymond shutout Leamington 7-0. The last time the Lincolns shutout the Rockets at home was January 15, 2007 when former Leamington Flyer netminder Frank Dayus, Jr. blanked the Rockets 2-0.

Goaltender Vella set the stage for the Lincoln win over the Rockets in the scoreless first period. It was a period that the Rockets dominated outshooting the Lincolns 16-8.

The Lincolns exploded for three second period goals to take a commanding 3-0 lead heading into the final period.

St. Marys got the ball rolling exactly a minute into the period. The Rockets got caught on a horrible line change. When Rocket scoring leader Shane Bulitka, who had his 10-game point streak snapped, was stripped of the puck just inside the Lincoln blueline by Jordan Winter, it sprung Nolan King and Lincoln scoring leader Brent House on a rare two on nothing break. King held onto the puck as long as he could and then passed the puck across of the Rocket goal to House, who one-timed his shot. Rocket goaltender Dan Davies got a piece of the puck but it ended up behind the Rocket tender and into the gapping cage to give the Lincolns a 1-0 lead.

With Rocket defenseman Evan Hogg off serving a hooking penalty, Philip Buque banged home a rebound past Davies after the Rocket keeper stopped a drive from the point at 7:55 from Ryan Martin.  Nathan Smith, who had a stellar game for the Lincolns, also assisted on the play.

With the Lincolns smelling blood, three minutes later a blast from the top of the faceoff circle ripped past a screened Davies off the stick of defenseman Matt Granger.

Fiery Rocket winger Matthew Stevens tried to inspire his teammates when he engaged Winter in a spirited bout. The fight accomplished nothing. The Rockets had little left in the tank and the Lincolns played a smart game, keeping the puck to the outside and icing it whenever they ran into trouble. Second period shots favoured the Rockets 14-12.

The Lincolns spend most of the third period just trying to kill the clock. Dan Cloutier secured the win with an empty net marker, the ninth the Rockets have sacrificed this season, at 18:55.

For the third straight period, the Rockets outshot the Lincolns, this time 11-7 and 41-27 over the sixty minutes. The 27 shots tied the fewest number of shots that the Rockets have faced in a match this season, also against St. Marys.

The Lincoln’s four-point bulge over the Predators seems massive. The two clubs still have one meeting before the season is over.

The slumping Rockets have not won a game against any other team than St. Marys and Lambton Shores since a December 12th 5-3 win over St. Thomas.

The Rockets once again dominated the faceoff circle winning 43 of 75 draws (57.3%). Lucas Latina (16-6, 72.7%) and newcomer Liam Fordy (9-3. 75.0%) led the Rockets.

It was the first game for Fordy. The Surrey, B.C. native was playing in the BCHL in Surrey. He is now attending the University of Western Ontario. The 6’ 1”, 200 centre adds some size to a small, young Rocket squad.

Rocket defenseman Dante Copps, who was celebrating his 19th birthday, had a solid game for the Rockets.

The accurate shot of Noah Tooke found the net five times, tops for any Rockets. Copps and Nick Griffin had four shots on goal.

The Rockets were playing the first of a 3-game in 3-night stint. They will host London on Saturday and Sarnia on Sunday at the WMMC.

It was Mental Heath Awareness Night in St. Marys. A huge crowd of 496 was on hand to cheer on their Lincolns. They did not go home disappointed. A large contingent of children sang O Canada, to begin the fun-filled evening.

Next up for the Lincolns is a trip to St. Thomas on Thursday, February 4.

(photo credit – David Honsberger, Brent House tallies the games first goal, and the game winner, converting a pass from Nolan King on a two-on-nothing break.)

David Honsberger

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