SPECIAL TEAMS FIZZLE – STRATHROY ROCKETS, ST. THOMAS STARS IN DEADLOCK

SPECIAL TEAMS FIZZLE – ROCKETS, STARS END IN DEADLOCK

All it would have taken was one simple powerplay goal, but neither the hometown Strathroy Rockets, nor the visiting St. Thomas Stars could muster one. Their Western Conference match in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League ended in a 3-3 stalemate in front of a good West Middlesex Memorial Centre crowd of 590 on Saturday, February 20, 2016.

The Rockets have failed to win a single game this season when scoring 3 goals or less (0-20-4-4). They are winless in their last 6 games and have won just 1 game in their last 11 outings.

It was the Rockets’ 16th game this season that has advanced into overtime. The Rockets have won just 3 of those games, two against Lambton Shores and one against St. Marys, while losing 9 and tying four. It was also their 11th game to advance into double overtime. The Rockets have won 1, lost 6 and tied 4.

St. Thomas won the season series with the Rockets 4-1-1-1.

Although the powerplays of both clubs were frustrated, the penalty killing was outstanding. Both the Rockets and the Stars kept their opponent off kilter cutting off passing lanes. It almost looked as if they had a peek at the other team’s powerplay strategies. Both clubs were reading the plays well, and when all else failed, there were a ton of blocked shots, particularly by the Stars.

The Rockets went 0 for 4 on the powerplay, including a tremendous opportunity in double overtime when Stars’ goaltender Nik Dampier upset Rocket defenseman Noah Tooke with a trip. Tooke had Dampier down and out in “No Man’s Land” at the side of the Stars’ net as Tooke faked a play to the front of the goal, and was heading behind the net for a wraparound on the empty net. Spread out like a snow angel, Dampier reached out and just managed to trip Tooke with the big goal stick. I’m sure Stars’ head coach Darren Kelly would call that a good penalty. The Rockets did manage 2 shots on goal during the resulting 4-on-3 powerplay but neither shot was of the dangerous variety. The Rockets had 6 powerplay shots on goal throughout the game.

The Stars drew a blank on 8 powerplay chances. The Rocket penalty killers only allowed the Stars to find the net 8 times. In fact, it was the Rockets who had the more dangerous chances while shorthanded. Dampier came up with his biggest stops of the night denying the Rockets on several shorthanded situations.

The Stars are going to have to generate more success on the powerplay to advance in the post season. Most high powered clubs live or die with their powerplay. Often they are content to match their opponent goal for goal in even strength situations and then beat you up on special teams. The Stars are still making adjustments since the loss of Ryan Valentini and Eric Henderson to the OHL. Although a lot of hockey pundits have written off the Stars in the playoffs, I still see them as a dangerous club. They are the most disciplined team in the entire GOJHL, have solid goaltending with Dampier and the affable Dan Black, have a super coaching staff and some very skilled and dangerous skaters. It is a club that can’t be outworked on most nights, and if you are counting on the powerplay goal late in the game against them, they likely won’t give you a sniff.

The Rockets will finish the season in seventh place. Barring a complete meltdown by the red hot Nats in the few remaining games of the season, the Rockets will play the second place London Nationals in the opening round. The Rockets only won one contest of the six they played this season against London, a 4-0 shutout at the Western Fair. Departed goaltender Mat Ouellet earned the shutout. The Nats won the other games by scores of 3-2, 6-4, 3-1, 7-1 and 6-4.

The Stars remain in fifth place, two points below the fourth place Chatham Maroons. The Maroons trail third place LaSalle by three points. The top four clubs gain home ice in the quarterfinals.

Although the shots on goal remained very close in every period, the game itself contained huge momentum shifts. The Rockets would outshoot the Stars 40-37.

The Stars scored an early and late goal in the first period and carried a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. The Rockets replied with a 3-goal second period, tallying twice in 31 seconds to tie the game and adding a third just 2:22 later. It was the ninth time this season that the Rockets have scored 3 goals in a period. A great individual effort by Star Ethan Nother tied the game at 3-3 at 13:09 of the third period to force the overtime.

Carson Brookshaw, who sits second in Western Conference scoring, opened the scoring with his 33rd goal of the season at 4:26. Brookshaw trails Lambton Shores Predator Ethan Sarfarti by 3 points for the West scoring title. Brookshaw was hot on the heels of Rocket defenseman Dante Copps for a dump-in in the corner to the right of Rocket netminder Dan Davies. Copps blew a tire and Brookshaw gathered up the puck and curled through the faceoff circle beating Davies with a deadly wrist shot from the faceoff dot.

Defenseman Jake Reed made it 2-0 at 18:34 when his point shot along the ice found its way through traffic and behind Davies. Reed had a stellar game. He was rock solid in his defensive zone and delivered the biggest hit of the game when he rattled T.J. Harris with a bone crunching smash in the first period.

The Rockets lost their scoring leader Shane Bulitka early in the first period. Teammate Jeff Williams was off serving an interference penalty at 6:52 and Bulitka along with Max Ewart were the first penalty killing tandem. At the first whistle following Bulitka’s shift he left the ice for the dressing room and did not return.

The Rockets exploded for three second period goals. With 6:29 left in the period, speedy Nick Griffin started the comeback when he outraced the Star defense and beat Dampier. Just 31 seconds later Codey McRoberts scored the proximity goal after some nice passing from Kieran Milne and Dillon Saunders. It was Milne’s first point in his last 11 games. The 20-year-old has been snake bitten this season and has struggled to put points up on the board.

Both Milne and Rocket captain Matt Laberge were both feted prior to the game by Rockets’ general manager Mike Bondy and head coach Brendan Riggin. Milne and Laberge will be the only two players that the Rockets will be losing this year to age. Laberge is the finest Rocket captain I have witnessed in my twenty years with the organization, rivalling Mark Bell from the late 1990s.

Ewart gave the Rockets the lead when he swept behind the Star defense at 16:24. Assists were awarded to Saunders and Milne, however Milne was not on the ice. The second assist should have went to Steve Griggs. The goal extended Ewart’s goal streak to 3 games, matching season highs by Bulitka and Lucas Latina. Ewart is also on a 5-game point streak. He won’t get the opportunity to break teammate Bulitka’s season high of 10 games with only 4 Rocket games left this season.

Speaking of Latina, the Rockets lost another one of their top scorers when the grinder was sent to the showers at 1:47 of the third period after getting nabbed for his third stick infraction (slashing, cross checking, high sticking). The high sticking call was an accidental high stick on Adam Truax.

It was an outstanding effort by the Rockets considering Wes Kelly was still sidelined and Bulitka and Latina were ushered from the game leaving the Rockets without 3 of their top 4 goal scorers.

Ethan Nother sent the game to overtime when he tied the match at 13:09. Nother showed tremendous second effort as he dove at a puck in front of the Rocket goal. He beat Davies to the puck who was also launching himself towards the puck with an attempted poke check. The puck arced over the sprawling Davies and into the Rocket goal as both players collided. It was an electrifying marker.

The Stars exhibited a lot of patience in the game. This club never panics. It remains poised and appears confident to tackle any obstacle in its way. They have 3 games remaining to play. Tuesday they will travel to Forest to play the Lambton Shores Predators before heading to Leamington to tangle with the first place Flyers on Thursday. The Stars will wrap up their regular season on Friday when they host LaSalle.

Griggs led all Rockets in the game with 8 shots on goal. Griffin and Saunders had 6. Latina had 5 before he was ejected from the game. Faceoffs were very even with the Rockets winning 54 while losing 53. Latina was once again the Rockets’ ace winning 15 while losing 7.

Cal Horvat had another solid game in the faceoff circle. He aids his game by practicing his draws with big brother Bo of the Vancouver Canucks.

Despite the Rocket powerplay in extra time, the Stars outshot the Rockets 9-6 in overtime.

The Rockets will have a busy final week as they play 4 games. Make-up games against St. Marys and Lambton Shores due to the recent winter storm have to be squeezed into the schedule. Tuesday the Rockets host the Lincolns before heading to LaSalle the following night. The Rockets will host Chatham for their final home game of the regular season on Saturday before travelling to the land of the wedge fries in Forest to play the Lambton Shores Predators on Sunday, in a game that could possibly make or break the Predators’ playoff hopes. The Preds presently trail the Lincolns by 2 points for the final playoff spot.

In other games Saturday night LaSalle got past London 5-3. The Vipers are now 11-2 in their last 13 games. The loss snapped the Nationals’ winning streak at 7 games. London is 10-2 in their last 12 games and are on the verge of clinching second place.

The front-running Leamington Flyers got past the last place Lambton Shores Predators 3-1. The Flyer win clinched first place for Leamington for the third straight year.

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

David Honsberger is a former journalist and columnist for the Strathroy Age Dispatch. A winner of the Stuart Bolton Memorial Award for the Strathroy Rockets Volunteer of the Year in 1996, David served for seven years as the club’s president. He was honoured in 2015 when he was inducted into the Strathroy Rockets/Blades Wall of Fame in the builder category.   A 20-year dishonoured volunteer with the Rockets, David has provided the colourful, honest commentary for the Strathroy Rockets radio broadcasts on 105.7 my FM. He resides in Strathroy with his mother and his two cherished Savannah cats, Scout and Hey, Boo.

David Honsberger

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