The LaSalle Vipers are winners of four in a row and 7 of their last 8 games. They provided plenty of venomous bite to the Strathroy Rockets Saturday night at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre in Strathroy as the resilient Vipers skated away with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory.

The Rockets, who have only won 1 of their last 11 matches, saw another third period lead disappear on goals by Nathan Savage and captain Nathan Veres. The Rockets have now lost their last 5 games. They went through a painful 2-6-2-1 January. Their only two wins were against the last place Lambton Shores Predators although the Rockets did earn a pair of points from double overtime losses to the Sarnia Legionnaires.

The good news for the Rockets is they have held leads against some tough opponents. The bad news is they have been unable to hold those leads. The Rockets have blown leads in their last four contests against LaSalle, Chatham, Sarnia and London. In two games the Rockets held 3-0 leads, and in three of them they carried leads into the third period.

It is an encouraging sign for Rocket head coach Brendan Riggin and his coaching staff. His club is getting much more competitive. They are pushing teams to the limit. The 15 overtime games his squad has completed in is evidence of this, 7 of them in a row, which is a league record.

It is no secret that the LaSalle Vipers struggle in the tight confines of WMMC in Strathroy. Head coach Bill Bowler has often lamented on his team’s struggles in Strathroy. Is it the tiny ice surface, the smallest in the Western Conference? Is it bus legs as a result of the long trip? Not sure. Neither is Bill. In contrast, the Rockets struggle in a big way at the Vollmer Recreation Centre in LaSalle. Whatever the reason, the Vipers found a way to escape with the valuable two points after a bit of a slow start.

The win moved last year’s Sutherland Cup finalists into sole possession of coveted fourth place. They sit three points behind third place Chatham and two points up on slumping fifth place St. Thomas. The Vipers also enjoy 2 games in hand on the inconsistent Maroons. The Vipers have their sights clearly set on the Maroons. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vipers claim third place by the time the regular season ends three weeks from now.

The top four clubs will enjoy home ice advantage in the opening round.

The season series between the Vipers and Rockets is dead even. Each team has a pair of wins and one game has ended in a tie. It couldn’t be any closer. Both clubs have scored 16 goals. The Rockets’ final road game of the season will be on Wednesday, February 24 in LaSalle to possibly decide the series.

In other action Saturday night the first place Leamington Flyers inched closer to securing the top seed doubling up the Legionnaires in Sarnia by a 4-2 score. The Flyers’ magic number is now reduced to 2. Any combination of Flyer wins or London National losses to total 2 will clinch first place for the third straight year for the Flyers. The two clubs will meet at the Western Fair in London on Wednesday. That game should be a dandy. Leamington has won 17 of its last 19 games.

The Chatham Maroons emerged as the winner in a wild 9-7 wide-open affair against the Lambton Shores Predators. The cellar dweller Preds are running out of time to try to catch the St. Marys Lincolns for the final playoff spot and likely a date with the powerful Flyers in the quarter-finals. The Preds have earned just a single point for a tie with Strathroy in their last 11 games. Lambton Shores will host the Rockets on Tuesday for one of their best opportunities to pick up some points. If you attend the game, don’t forget the wedge fries at the canteen.

Now back to Strathroy. The Vipers trailed 1-0 after one period and 2-1 after forty-minutes despite outshooting the Rockets in every period. Final shots were LaSalle 43, Strathroy 35.

The opening period was a tight checking affair. Both clubs battled quite evenly until the Vipers began to take control in the later stages. Rocket T.J. Harris had the best chance to break the scoreless draw on a clear cut breakaway on Viper goaltender Paolo Battisti but the big goaltender came up with a nice positional save.At 16:49 Rocket Matt Stevens objected to a questionable hit from Nolan Gardiner and the two decided to settle the debate with a spirited bout. Don’t be deceived with all of Stevens’ beautiful golden curls. The cutie-pie leads the Rockets this season in fisticuffs with 4 fights.

The battle enlightened the crowd of 298 and his teammates. With Viper Connor Rosassen off serving a high sticking penalty Rocket rookie sensation Max Ewart pounced on a rebound to put the Rockets up 1-0. Harris and Rocket scoring leader Shane Bulitka assisted on the play at 18:49. Viper tender Battisti was guilty of letting out some juicy rebounds throughout the game, but the Viper defense was very effective in not giving the Rockets a second opportunity on too many occasions.

Ewart was presented with the Poag Jewelers’ Player of the Month Award for January prior to the start of the game. Goaltender Dane Gubbels and Bulitka were runners-up for the award. The Rockets were fortunate to have Ewart back in the line-up. He was forced from the Rockets’ game in Chatham on Wednesday with a high stick. He required some dental work after that ordeal. I can sympathize with the exciting forward. I had a couple of chick lets removed myself this week, however in my case it was done in a safe, sanitary location – and freezing was involved! Ewart was wearing full face protection against the Vipers.

An early second period penalty to Liam MacDougall for an accidental trip swung the Rockets back on the power play. This time Bulitka set up a pinching Dante Cops with a delightful cross ice pass and the Rockets were up 2-0. Harris also assisted on the play. Copps has emerged in the past couple of weeks as a dangerous offensive threat from his rearguard position. Both Rocket powerplay goals came with the same five skaters on the ice, Ewart, Bulitka and Harris up front and Copps and Rocket captain Matt Laberge back at the point. With three powerplay goals scored in Chatham and a pair against LaSalle, perhaps the Rockets have found a winning combination for their powerplay.

The Vipers cut the Rocket lead to 2-1 when Brett Primeau beat Rocket goaltender Dane Gubbels with a shot to the short side, glove hand on the rush at 6:34. Daniel Beaudoin and Eric Kirby drew assists. What a shot in the arm the addition of Beaudoin has made to this hockey club. He was returned recently to the team from the OHL Windsor Spitfires. Already he has accumulated 18 points in 9 games. He was the rookie scoring champion two years ago. Beaudoin was the Vipers’ Playoff MVP last year helping to lead the club to a trip to the Western Conference Finals against the Leamington Flyers, a Wild Card berth and to the Sutherland Cup Finals. He is a superb player and a delight to watch on every shift.

Just before the period expired the Vipers nearly tied the game but their goal was waved off for either a glove pass or being directed in with a glove. I’m not sure if an announcement was made on the goal. The P.A. system in Strathroy has to be the worst in the Western Conference. I can barely make out a word that is said.

Early in the third period the Rockets came close to earning an important insurance goal but a drive from hard-hosed Rocket defenseman Jeff Clarke from the neutral zone handcuffed Battisti but rattled off the goalpost.

The Vipers came close to tying the game but Rocket netminder Gubbels, who was easily the star of the night for the Rockets, came up with a pair of electrifying saves on Blake Jones.

Shortly later Nathan Savage tied the contest when he redirected a puck in front of Gubbels’ to knot the game at 2-2. Primeau and Viper Captain Nathan Veres earned assists at 5:48.

The game winner came at 10:58 on the rush when defensemen Nikko Sablone and Veres hooked up with Veres being the triggerman with a deadly shot to Gubbels’ blocker side. Sablone has great hockey hair.

The return of Veres to the Viper lineup has been monumental and cannot be understated. The Viper captain was injured in LaSalle’s second game of the season against Kitchener in the Showcase Event in London on September 13. He returned to active duty on January 6. He commands a monstrous presence on the ice. It is quite evident that Veres is the inspirational leader of this club. He is quite vocal and can easily be heard instructing his teammates. This is his hockey team. He has remained active with them throughout his injury and is now given the opportunity to lead them into the Promised Land one more time – and he just might.

The Rockets had a tremendous opportunity to tie the game and force overtime for the 16th time this season. At 17:23 Viper scoring leader Manny Silverio committed the cardinal sin. He drew a needless offensive zone slashing penalty. That threw the Rockets back on the powerplay with a unit that had already connected twice earlier in the game and with the prospect of pulling Gubbels for an extra attacker. With 1:29 remaining in regulation time and 52 seconds left in Silverio’s penalty the Rockets called a time out and pulled Gubbels for the extra attacker. The Viper penalty killers were phenomenal. They completely disrupted the Rocket attack putting a wall around Battisti and easily broke up any Rocket threat before it happened. The Rockets failed to register a single shot on goal during the powerplay and extra attacker situation.

The Vipers dug deep and came up with a textbook win. It is the type of effort you expect from an experienced, veteran and battle worthy club. It could be an outcome the Rockets will experience with a few more skirmishes under their belt.  I noticed that the Vipers had great team chemistry on the ice. They were always skating to a teammate and tapping gloves. They really seemed to me on a mission and playing together as one cohesive group.

The Rockets converted 2 of six powerplay chances on 4 shots while the Vipers failed to connect with the extra man going 0 for 4 with just 3 powerplay shots, a credit to the improved Rocket special teams work. It was the eighth multiple powerplay goal game of the season for the Rockets and the fifth time they have had 2 powerplay goals in a game.

Winning low scoring games has been problematic for the Rockets this season. They have yet to win a game when scoring 3 goals or less. In every Rocket win they have scored 4, 5 or 6 goals which are a real problem for a team that averages just 2.8 goals a game.

The Rockets are still without the services of the hard-working Wesley Kelly. He has missed six games since being shaken up in Leamington. He is vital cog to the Rockets’ attack. His return for the post season would greatly increase the Rockets’ chances for a first round upset.

The Rockets appear to be locked into seventh place. It is impossible to catch Sarnia above them and practically impossible for St. Marys to catch them from below. The Lincolns would have to run the table in their final six games while the Rockets would have to fail to earn a point to give the Lincolns a chance to claim seventh. As well it looks very unlikely anyone is going to catch the London Nationals for second place. Mathematically Chatham, LaSalle and St. Thomas could still overtake the Nationals but the way the Nats are playing I do not see that happening. I’ve been wrong before, actually I am wrong a lot, so let’s see how this plays down. There are going to be lots of very exciting, entertaining games. Presently London is up 3 points on Chatham with 2 games in hand.

The Rockets had a new face in the line-up against the Vipers. Brian McLean was dressed for his first game in a Rocket sweater. (Yes it is a sweater, not a jersey. If you are in doubt just ask Rocket trainer Mike Brooks. He will set you straight.) McLean is an affiliated Junior player from the Jr. C North Middlesex Stars. He played centre between Stevens and Turner Balasin creating an effective energy line until Stevens was sent to the showers. He is an excellent skater and hustler who relished his role and had an impressive debut.

The Rockets moved Nick Griffin into a centre position between Lucas Latina and Harris. Griffin had an outstanding night. The Vipers had difficulty containing his speed and versatility. However putting Latina on the wing took away one of the Rockets’ greatest assets – faceoffs. Latina is the Rockets best faceoff man and having the abrasive forward on the wing helped in the corners digging for pucks but had a devastating effect in the faceoff circle. The Vipers won 50 draws while only losing 27 (64.9%). The Vipers are a very difficult team to play against, especially if they start most plays with puck possession.

The Rockets had juggled their defense pairings. Their three pairings have remained practically unchanged all year. The two veterans were paired together, Laberge and Dalton Good. Good had the top plus-minus on the team last year on defense; Laberge earned those honours the previous year. Noah Tooke skated with Evan Hogg and Copps was with Clarke. I was impressed with their work. Defensive zone coverage seemed improved and there were much fewer turnovers and much less chaos. In fact the entire Rocket squad did a much better job in their end. They limited themselves to 18 turnovers, a very low number for this level of hockey.

Ewart, Harris and Copps led the Rockets with shots on goal.

The Rockets will have a great opportunity to get back in the winning ways when they travel to the land of the wedge fries on Tuesday to play the Lambton Shores Predators before hosting the St. Marys Lincolns on Saturday. Unfortunately I will be in Purgatory on Tuesday and unable to enjoy those wedge fries.

The Vipers will welcome St. Thomas on Wednesday and travel to Chatham on Sunday.

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

David Honsberger

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