As the month of January draws to a close, none of the nine positions in the Western Conference of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League has been etched yet in stone.

It is only a brief matter of time until front-running Leamington locks down first place. The Flyers ended January on a huge high, even for them, with convincing wins over the only two teams trying to challenge them, the Chatham Maroons and the London Nationals. As February begins, the Flyers will return from their annual Caribbean cruise, and be in a position to lock down the top seed, possibly in the first week.

At the other end of the standings, the St. Marys Lincolns now have a four-point lead over the Lambton Shores Predators for the final playoff spot. That race could possibly continue until the final week of the regular season.

London has a 3-point lead in the “Second Seed Lottery” over Chatham. The Maroons have plenty of competition behind them. Chatham, St. Thomas, LaSalle and Sarnia are now just separated by a narrow 3 points.

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

The second seed is the brass ring. It is coveted, and vital for the best chance for a trip to the finals against the powerful Flyers.

How come?

Well the Strathroy Rockets are mired in seventh place. Mathematically they cannot catch the Sarnia Legionnaires above them, and realistically neither St. Marys nor Lambton Shores has a hope in hell of catching the Rockets.
The Rockets will be cannon fodder for the second seed. The Rockets, with 16 rookies in the lineup, have battled hard on most nights. They give it all they have but in the long run, they are just too inexperienced to put a dent in the armour of whichever second seed team they play. It is possible they could win a game, but nothing more. In this day of the wild card, teams realize that a game they drop in the opening round could very well result in the loss of a Sutherland Cup berth. A “take no prisoners” approach results in many quarterfinal series to be over in a hurry.

The second benefit of landing that second seed is likely a longer break waiting for the semi finals to begin as the 3-6 and 4-5 matchups usually take longer to complete, especially that 4-5 series which often runs seven games. There is plenty of time for rest, practice, strategy sessions and for some bumps and bruises to heal.

The third and biggest benefit that the number two seed wins is guaranteed home ice advantage in the semi finals. It could be the difference maker in a long and bitter series against a very tough opponent. Everyone wants that game seven in their own barn.

Visions of that number two seed were beginning to evaporate on Saturday evening at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre in Strathroy. The London Nationals found themselves down 2-0 to the lowly Rockets after one period on goals by Codey McRoberts and Max Ewart. Shots were even at 9-9.

When Dillon Saunders upped the ante to 3-0 for the Rockets at 3:42 of the second period, the Nationals found themselves in a deep, deep hole.

I’m sure Nats’ head coach Pat Powers, a former Strathroy Blade back in his playing days, reminded his troops of the severe situation. It was their final game of the season series against the Rockets. The Chatham Maroons, who have flip-flopped second place with the Nationals several times in the past couple weeks, still had two meetings left with the Rockets. Do you think the Maroons are going to leave those four points sitting on the table? It was time to get to work.

And get to work the Nationals did. Big time.

Before the middle frame had expired, London quickly erased the three-goal deficit by ripping off four straight goals on 19 shots by John Adams, Kevin Madden, Austin Kemp and Scott Goodman on besieged Rocket netminder Dane Gubbels. London goaltender Zack Weir had to only face 13 Rocket shots. Adams’ goal came on the powerplay with Rocket defenseman Evan Hogg off serving a holding penalty.

Holding on to that precious 4-3 lead the two clubs battled through a tight, well-played third period until defenseman Tyler Sehovic gave the Nationals a little breathing room.

His screened shot through traffic at 15:54 in front of Gubbels caught the bottom right corner and London had scored five consecutive goals to go ahead 5-3. It was a powerplay marker with Shane Bulitka off serving a careless high sticking penalty. The goal would eventually stand up as the game winner.

Saunders got that one back just 70 seconds later when his shot from the high slot went off the post and into the London net behind Weir. It was his second goal of the game.

With the Rockets cutting the National lead to 5-4, their comeback was short-lived as Goodman notched his second of the night only 57 seconds later.

It was game, set and match for the Nats.

London outshot Strathroy 38-29 over the sixty minutes. Special teams had a huge impact on the outcome. The Nationals converted 2 of 5 chances on 7 shots while the Rockets were unsuccessful in four opportunities registering just 5 powerplay shots on goal.

Tempers flared at the end of the second period when National Matt Bean and Rocket Jeff Williams were assessed minors for roughing and misconducts for inciting.

The Rockets have won just one of their last 8 games. The loss snapped a Rocket 8-game home point streak. Playing in back-to-back games the Rockets have won just one game in 13 opportunities.

After having his 10-game point streak end the previous night in St. Marys, Rocket scoring leader Bulitka got back to business earning three assists. Only Max Ewart and Rocket captain Matt Laberge have earned 3 assists in a game this season. Bulitka also led the Rockets with 6 shots on goal. Nick Griffin and Saunders had 4 shots on goal.

London won the season series over Strathroy five games to one. The Rockets’ lone win was a 4-0 shutout in London. Departed netminder Mat Ouellet earned the shutout in that encounter.

The Nationals completely destroyed the Rockets in the faceoff circle winning 50 draws and only losing 27 (64.9%). It was the most dominating faceoff performance by a team against the Rockets this season.

The end result disappointed over 500 Rocket fans, their largest crowd of the season.  The Chamber of Commerce had their monthly meeting prior to the game and a minor hockey team was feted for winning a Silver Stick tournament.  All were invited to stay for the game.

Next up for the Rockets is a date with the Sarnia Legionnaires on Sunday night at the WMMC. It will be 3 games in 3 nights for the Rockets. London will host St. Thomas on Wednesday at the Western Fair Community Centre.

(photo credit – Rocket GM Mike Bondy addresses the Chamber of Commerce while Rocket president Don Windsor looks on.  Colleen Wiendels Photography.)

David Honsberger

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