“Don’t wake the sleeping giant.”

We have all heard that expression. It is usually referenced to, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” That was said by Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto to Ogata Taketora on January 9, 1942 referring to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It became one of the turning points of the Second World War as the USA, who was curious observers to that point, joined the war.

In this instance I am referring to the Strathroy Rockets awakening a lethargic Sarnia Legionnaire squad at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre on Sunday, January 31, 2016.

The Legionnaires were playing their second game in two nights. On Saturday they fell behind 2-0 before storming back for a 6-4 win over the Lambton Shores Predators in Forest.

The Rockets had even a bigger reason to look a bit fatigued. They were playing their third game in three nights having already lost Friday night to the Lincolns in St. Marys and the previous night to the London Nationals at the WMMC.

The loss to the Nats was a tough pill to swallow. Playing in front of their biggest crowd of the season the Rockets saw a 3-0 lead evaporate as they gave up five straight goals enroute to an embarrassing 6-4 loss.

The Rockets had an opportunity to redeem themselves.

Sarnia looked not in synch in the first period. They had problems connecting on their passing and did not display their usual ability to finish plays around the Rocket goal.

Signs of a poor night for the Legionnaires were intensified when speedy Nick Griffin tallied a shorthanded marker with 45 seconds left in the period to give the Rockets a 1-0 lead heading into the first intermission. The puck bounced past the Sarnia defense at the Rocket blueline with the Rockets serving a too many men on the ice penalty. Griffin outraced both the Sarnia defender and Legionnaire goaltender Aiden Hughes to the puck for an electrifying goal.
The wide open period favoured Sarnia 17-16 in shots. Both clubs had 5 shots on the powerplay.

The Rockets added to their lead with a pair of powerplay goals at 2:36 and 9:35. Shane Bulitka knocked the puck into the Sarnia goal from the stick of Jarret Marks and Dante Copps smashed the puck into the Legionnaire net for his first goal of the season to give the Rockets a commanding, but all too uncomfortable 3-0 lead.

The Bulitka powerplay goal came with Sam McCormack off serving a slashing penalty. Copps took advantage of a double minor to Ethan Dupont for crosschecking and roughing.

Sarnia was the sleeping giant for half the game. Legionnaire McCormack was shaken up from a confrontation with Rocket Max Ewart. McCormack was forced from the game to the dressing room for treatment. He did return later in the contest.

I must admit I did not see the incident. It was also off camera on Rocket video. The result was obvious. There was no penalty called on the play. Sarnia went ballistic. They ran at everything wearing a Rocket sweater. Bodies were flying everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I thought I needed ice packs when the game was over. The smaller Rockets tried to match the Legionnaires’ physicality but were grossly unable to do so. The ice was awash with Rocket red, white and blue.

The first encounter was Rocket underage defenseman Jeff Clarke and Brendan Shagena who were ushered off for roughing after the whistle.

Cue Ethan Dupont. Dupont stepped up to the plate by crosschecking Turner Balasin at centre ice. Rocket captain Matt Laberge came to his teammate’s defense. Dupont tried furiously to engage Laberge in fisticuffs but Laberge refused to fight. Dupont ended up with a double minor for roughing on Laberge, the crosscheck on Balasin and an inciting misconduct. He was very, very fortunate not to be ejected for fighting by referees Steve Gould and Ryan Van Heeswyk. Laberge was tagged with just a minor for roughing.

The result was the Copps powerplay goal. The bigger result was the giant, who had slumbered for half of the game, woke up in an ugly mood.

Sniper Ryan Vendrasmin got Sarnia on the scoreboard before the period ended to cut the Rocket lead to 3-1.

Not often does a team blow a 3-goal lead. Was it possible to do that in consecutive games? On back-to-back nights? At home? I can’t recall ever witnessing such an event.

Sarnia just clipped the Rockets 13-12 on shots on goal in the second period, including 5 powerplay shots on goal for the Rockets. Sarnia failed to get a powerplay shot on goal on their only opportunity.

The Sarnia anger and intensity continued in the third period.

Brandon Layman brought the Legionnaires to within a goal at 4:17 and just 59 seconds later Alec DeKoning tied the game at 3-3.

Brock Perry completed the Sarnia comeback when he ripped a wrist shot from the top of the faceoff circle past a helpless Dane Gubbels on Sarnia’s fourth powerplay of the game at 9:24 with Kieran Milne off with a needless neutral zone tripping penalty. It was Sarnia’s only shot on the powerplay.

The Rockets’ best chance to tie the game came with a 2-man advantage for 1:28 with Joey Zappa (I love his hair) and former Chatham Maroon Brett Storr both off for tripping penalties. The Rockets did manage three shots on goal by Laberge, Copps and Ewart but Hughes was equal to the task.

Sarnia scored three-third period goals for the win on just 6 shots. Final shots favoured the Rockets 41-36.

The Legionnaires swept the season series with the Rockets winning all 6 games, although four of them were decided in overtime.

The Rockets were 2 for 8 on the powerplay. Sarnia was 1 for 4. It was just the fourth time this season the Rockets have scored 2 powerplay goals in a game.

In back to back games this year the Rockets are 1 for 14. Looks like these guys need a lot more rest between games.

The win extended Sarnia’s winning streak to 4 games.

Bulitka and Laberge led all Rockets with 5 shots on goal. Milne and Dillon Saunders had four shots. Faceoffs were nearly dead even. Sarnia won 47, Strathroy won 46. Lucas Latina was the best for the Rockets going 13-7 (65%).

Despite the loss the Rockets should hold their heads up high. They battled as hard as they could. They emptied the tank but were simply up against a much more determined, skilled and clearly pissed off hockey team. After all we sometimes forget that it is just a game. All the planning and preparation in the world sometimes means nothing.
The 11-21-3-8 Rockets will fail in their goal of trying to finish the season with a .500 record.

After the weekend action things have heated up once again in the Western Conference standings. Leamington is a cinch to clinch first place. The only team mathematically that can catch them is London. The Flyer’s magic number is three. Any combination of London losses or Leamington wins to total three will seal first place for the Flyers for the third straight year. They meet Thursday in Leamington and next Wednesday in London.

Second place London leads Chatham by three points. Chatham, St. Thomas, LaSalle and Sarnia are separated by just 3 points.

London, St. Thomas and LaSalle have 2 games in hand on Chatham and 3 games in hand on Sarnia.

The Rockets will travel to Chatham for a rare Wednesday game at Memorial Arena before hosting LaSalle on Saturday at the WMMC. Sarnia has a pair of home games this week. They play LaSalle on Thursday and Leamington on Saturday.

(photo credit – Colleen Wiendels Photography)

David Honsberger

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