It was an exorcism of sorts for the Chatham Maroons and the visiting Strathroy Rockets at the famed Memorial Arena in Chatham when the Rockets and the Maroons locked horns in a Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League Western Conference battle on a rare Wednesday night. From the wide-open, highly entertaining affair on display, perhaps the Maroons should play more Wednesday nights.

For the Maroons they entered the contest on a 3-game losing skid. It was their longest dry spell of the season. A 5-4 double overtime win over the Rockets got that monkey off of their back. It also allowed them to keep pace with the red hot London Nationals for that coveted second seed. The Nats allowed the visiting St. Thomas Stars to score first but rattled off 5 straight goals enroute to a 5-1 win. London has lost just once in their last 11 outings. The Nationals lead the Maroons by 3 points and hold 2 games in hand over Chatham.

In other Western Conference action the last place Lambton Shores Predators were blanked 4-0 by the LaSalle Vipers. The win moved the Vipers into a fourth place tie with St. Thomas. Both clubs trail Chatham by just 3 points. Eli Billing earned the shutout for the Vipers, the first of his Junior B career.

For the Rockets the overtime loss helped solidify a degree of success for a club that was coming off of a very disappointing weekend. The Rockets were shutout in St. Marys on Friday and then saw 3-goal leads disappear the next two nights at the WMMC to London and the Sarnia Legionnaires. The Rockets have just 3 wins in their last 15 games, two against Lambton Shores and one against St. Marys, the only two teams below them in the standings, but the Rockets sent a very clear message – regardless of the hardships they have endured this season, they will be pushovers for no one come playoff time.

The excellent Wednesday night crowd of 740 fans was on the edge of their seats for most of the night as the two clubs combined for an incredible 128 shots on goal. Rocket netminder Dane Gubbels faced 72 shots while Maroon Brendan Johnston stared down 56 shots.

The 72 shots are the most that the Rockets have faced in a single game this year eclipsing a 59-shot barrage by Leamington in a 3-2 double overtime Flyer win.

The 56 Rocket shots on the Maroons tied a Rocket season high set earlier in a 6-5 overtime win over Lambton Shores.

Needless to say the goaltending was top tier. Without it, the final score would have easily been in the double digits for both teams.

The Rockets did an excellent job of keeping the Maroons’ top guns off of the scoresheet. Other than a goal by Connor Koviac, who sits third in team scoring, no one else among the Maroons’ top 12 scorers managed to get the puck past Gubbels.

It was a classic see-saw battle with both clubs having the lead twice until the Devin Panzeca double overtime winner with 50 seconds remaining before the game would be called a tie.

The Maroons lead the season series against the Rockets 5-0. Two of the games were decided in overtime. The two teams will meet at the WMMC for the Rockets’ final home game of the season on February 27. The Maroons have outscored the Rockets 22-9 over the five games.

Special teams have been a problem for the Rockets this season. It was nearly their salvation on this night. They tallied 3 powerplay goals on 7 chances. It marked only the third time this season that the Rockets have converted three powerplay goals in a game. The Maroons made good once on 4 chances but added a vital shorthanded goal by the overtime hero Penzeca. Chatham leads the entire GOJHL in shorthanded goals with 20. Since joining the team 8 games ago from the Timmons Rock in the NOJHL, Penzeca has scored four goals. His first three were all shorthanded markers.

Both clubs had two-man advantages and both clubs cashed in.

Rocket rookie Max Ewart tallied the only goal of the first period on a 1:15 five-on-three with Ross Krieger and Connor McKinnon in the box for slashing and cross-checking.

Johnston was crazy-busy in the first period as the Maroons were outshot 24-10. The 24 Rocket shots were 2 shy of a Rocket season high of 26 that they fired at London in a period in a 6-4 loss.

Five minutes later Ewart was ushered from the game when he caught a high stick in the face from Cory Bussing. Bussing was assessed a double minor for highsticking. Ewart did not return to the game, if he had the Rockets would have likely won this contest.

Michael Douglas scored his second goal of the season on a 55-second Maroon five-on-three at 2:16 of the second period. Rocket captain Matt Laberge and Evan Hogg were in the box for roughing and interference.

The Rockets have converted 3 of 20 two-man advantages this season (15%) while their opponents have made good on 3 of 12 chances (25%).

Koviac gave the Maroons their first lead of the night at 5:27 when Gubbles and Laberge had some miscommunication around the Rocket goal.

Dillon Saunders tied the game at 2-2 just 84 seconds later with Maroon scoring leader Ian Faubert off with a slashing penalty.

Nolan VandenBoom put the Maroons back on top 3-2 only 54 seconds later with his second goal of the campaign.

The Rockets then popped a pair of quick goals 58 seconds apart by Saunders, with his second of the period, and an unassisted marker by Nick Griffin after the speedster picked the Maroon’s pockets clean.

Saunders’ powerplay goal came with Blair Derynck off on a slashing call. The pair of powerplay goals is the first that Saunders has scored this season on the powerplay. It is his second 2-goal performance as a Rocket and is the only Rocket this season to tally 2 powerplay goals in a single period.

The wild second period saw 6 goals, three by each team. The Maroons outshot the Rockets 27-16. The 27 shots that the Rockets surrendered in one period tied a season high set earlier in the year against Chatham in a 3-1 loss.

For the remainder of the game the Maroons would outshoot the Rockets 31-16. The Rocket defensive zone resembled London after German air strikes during the Second World War. No wonder Chatham Memorial Arena sits on top of the Canadian Armed Forces training grounds used during WWII. The Rockets were outshot 21-8 in the third period. Gubbels was spectacular.

The Panzeca forced overtime with his shorthanded marker at 7:44.

First overtime shots were even at 5-5. In the double OT period the Maroons peppered Gubbels and the Rockets outshooting their rivals 9-3.

The game winner came when two Rocket defenders chased Kreiger. He made a beautiful pass from the bottom of the right circle to Panzeca who was parked at the left post for an easy tap-in sending the 740 Maroon fans into jubilation.
Dante Copps had another outstanding game on the Rocket blueline. He was the quarterback on the Rocket powerplay dancing across the blueline and feathering passes to his teammates. He assisted on all three Rocket powerplay markers. Only three other Rockets have tallied 3 assists in a game this season, Laberge, Ewart and Shane Bulitka.

Rocket veteran Kieran Milne continues to struggle. He created some great chances to score in the game but was unable to convert. He has no points in his last 9 games and has only a single assist in his last 13 games.

The Rockets rattled two pucks off of the crossbar behind Johnson, who was appearing in his first game since January 16. He has only started 2 games in the last 2 months.

The Rockets have appeared in a ton of overtime games this season. So many in fact that they will have played in excess of 51 games in a 50-game season. This was their 15th overtime game. Ten of them have advanced to double overtime. They have won just 3 of them, however the 12 extra points they have earned from losses and ties accounts for more than a third of the 34 points they have earned this season. It is only through their grit and determination in picking up these extra points that has separated them from St. Marys and Lambton Shores below them.

The Rockets will be idle until they host LaSalle at the WMMC on Saturday at 7:30pm. Next Tuesday they will head to the land of the wedge fries in Forest to play the Lambton Shores Predators. They are so freakin’ good (not the Preds, the fries.) Lambton Shores also has the friendliest and most helpful arena staff I have ever seen. What a great facilty.

The Maroons will play back-to-back road games this week. Friday they will be in Stonetown to play the St. Marys Lincolns and then head to The Shores Recreation Centre in Forest to have some wedge fries and play the Predators the next night. The Maroons do not have a home game this Sunday. A week later they will host the LaSalle Vipers for the annual Valentine’s Day Massacre.

(photo credit – Chatham Maroons’ Steven Beenackers, right, battles with Strathroy Rockets’ Evan Hogg in front of the Rockets’ net in the first period Wednesday at Memorial Arena. (MARK MALONE/The Daily News))

David Honsberger

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