It was an entertaining evening at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre in Strathroy as goaltender Emanuel Vella and his St. Marys Lincolns teammates overcame overwhelming odds to scratch and claw their way to a 6-4 decision over the hometown Strathroy Rockets and help inch them one step closer to securing the eighth and final playoff position in Western Conference action in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

The Lincolns were edged 4-3 by the last place Lambton Shores Predators on February 19. It was the Preds only win in their last 15 games and had temporarily moved them to within 2 points of the Lincolns and the coveted last playoff berth. With the win the Lincolns moved four points ahead of their Forest rivals in the final week of regular season action. St. Marys’ magic number is now one. Any combination of Lincoln wins or Predator losses to equal one, will eliminate the Predators from post season action.

St. Marys are 2-8 in their last 10 games. Both wins came at the expense of the crumbling Rockets by scores of 4-0 and 6-4.

The nose-diving Rockets have won just one game of their last 13, a 4-2 decision over Lambton Shores. It has been 72 long suffering days for the Rockets and their supporters since they defeated anyone other than the Lincolns or the Predators. That was a 5-3 win over St. Thomas on December 13. The Rockets are still looking for their first win in February.

The sting of this loss will still be resonating in the Rockets’ heads as they jump from the frying pan to the fire and they head to the Vollmer Recreation Centre to battle the Vipers the next night. Playing in back-to-back games has been torturous for the Rockets this season. They have won just once in 14 previous opportunities this season.

The Rockets and the Lincolns split the season series at 3-3. Each team had an overtime win. St. Marys and Strathroy have now each earned 8 regulation time wins on the season. The Rockets have not lost a season series to the Lincolns in the past 13 years. Strathroy and St. Marys have not met as playoff opponents since the Rockets were known as the Blades.

The game was sponsored by the Strathroy Lions Club and featured a lovely and inspiring rendition of O Canada by Lauryen Soares.

The game was a perfect example of why we play the game. After all, it is a game, and sometimes all the planning and preparation in the world doesn’t make any difference. The Lincolns were facing overwhelming odds, but they were playing for their very playoff lives. The Rockets are locked into seventh place. They can go no higher or lower in the standings.

I don’t think I saw a kitchen sink headed Emanuel Vella’s way, but the Rockets threw everything they had at the Lincoln keeper and London Knight draft pick.

Some out-of-the-body saves by Vella combined with some very opportunistic scoring on 6 goals on 15 shots from his teammates kept the Lincolns just barely ahead of the Rockets for most of the night. St. Marys never trailed in the match, but the Rockets tied the score twice at 2-2 and 3-3.

The Rockets launched 59 projectiles at Vella while at the opposite end of the ice Dane Gubbels and Dan Davies only had to deal with 14. The 59 shots represent the most in a single game this year by the Rockets, while the 14 shots against, 15 with Nolan Kings’ empty net marker, are the fewest allowed in a single game this year by the Rockets. The Lincolns were outshot by period numbers of 17-4, 29-7 and 13-4. The 29 second period shots are the most by the Rockets in a single period this season. The empty net goal was the 7th allowed by the Rockets this season. It was just the fourth time this season that the Rockets have outshot an opponent and lost. They are 7-4-1-2 when leading in shots.

The Rockets dominated so much of the game play that the Lincolns only managed to force 11 faceoffs in the Rockets’ defensive zone throughout the entire game. The Rockets forced 51 draws in the Lincolns’ end zone.

Besides Vella’s exploits in goal, the Lincolns had outstanding evenings from Brent House with 2 goals and 3 assists and Nolan King with a goal and 4 helpers. Ryan Martin had a goal and 2 assists while Jeff Schrattner tallied the game winner and added an assist. No other Lincoln registered a point but their work ethic cannot be understated. House is 8th in Western Conference scoring.

Nick Griffin, Liam Fordy with his first as a Rocket, Lucas Latina and Matt Stevens replied for the Rockets. It was a frustrating night for Latina. He tallied his first goal in his past 7 games and just his second goal in his last 12 games. Prior to his scoring slump Latina had rattled off 10 goals in 11 games and was the undisputed leader of the hockey club. Latina was on the ice for four Lincoln goals and in the penalty box for another. Latina has retaken the GOJHL penalty minute lead, a remarkable feat since he is assessed very few misconducts. He leads the league in minor penalties.

Speaking of penalties, the Lincolns made good on the very few chances that were afforded them. They had just 2 powerplay chances in the game and registered 2 powerplay goals on just 2 powerplay shots on goal.

The Rockets went 0 for 2 with the man advantage generating 6 powerplay shots on goal.

As well, the Rockets had some key absentees. Hard-working Wes Kelly is still sidelined with an injusry that has kept him out of the last 8 Rocket games. Their scoring leader, underager Shane Bulitka, who was forced from the Rockets’ previous game, a 3-3 draw with St. Thomas on Saturday just 7 minutes into the contest, played the first period but never returned. His wingers, Max Ewart and Dillon Saunders, appeared lost without the talented centre. The Rockets’ only twenty-year-old forward, Kieran Milne, continues to be snake-bitten. He has no goals in his last 16 games and failed to register a shot on goal. The Rockets’ only other 20-year-old, captain Matt Laberge, went to the bench favouring his back/ribs in the second period. He did not play in the third. Laberge was on for 4 Lincoln goals, including both powerplay markers. Laberge was victimized on the tie-breaking Martin goal. Speeding down the left wing, Martin went through Laberge like a hot knife through butter and deftly picked the corner on starter Gubbels.
Rookie defenseman Noah Tooke had a stellar game. He was on the ice for all 4 Rocket goals and led all Rockets with 8 shots on goal. He was instrumental in leading the Rocket attack up the ice. The only Lincoln goal he was on the ice for was King’s empty-netter. His usual defensive partner Evan Hogg was a rock on defense. He finished the night a +2, the only Rocket to do so other than Tooke’s +3.

House opened the scoring at 4:10 of the first period blasting a drive past Gubbels from the left wing on the rush. It was the Lincolns’ first shot on goal.

At 7:08 Brulette scored a beauty on the Lincolns’ second shot on goal. It was the only two St. Marys forays into the Rocket zone thus far in the game.

The Lincolns were guilty of being too soft with their passes. The Rockets were eating a steady diet of weak passes and barricading the Lincolns in their own zone. A wide-open Latina cut the St. Marys lead in half to 2-1 at 11:21 when he was left unmarked at the side of the Lincoln goal. Credit Griffin with the nice set up pass.

Vella was left to his own devices often in the game. He frequently dove prone on the ice poking a loose puck away from danger with the big goal stick. The Lincolns has three other good chances to score but their over aggressiveness at the Rocket blueline forced the plays offside. Rocket defenseman Dalton Good made a superb defensive play to breakup an odd-man rush.

The Lincolns finished the first period clinging to a 2-1 lead.

Despite the Rockets holding a 29-7 advantage in shots on goal in the second period, both teams scored twice. Playing in his fourth game as a Rocket, the Lincolns were unable to move the big form of Fordy from the front of the net and the centre tied the score at 2-2 at the 2:10 mark. The goal came on a play that should have been called back for a Rocket icing.

Martin then decided to join the highlight reel when he dangled his way past Laberge and beat Gubbels to put the Lincolns back on top at 3-2 at 5:23 with Griffin in the box serving a goaltender interference penalty. Trouble maker Stevens, and I say that with the highest degree of love and affection, scored a rare tally to tie the game once more at 3-3 at 11:26. It would be as close as the Rockets would get.

Next Griffin rattled a puck off of the post at the end of a Rockets’ powerplay before Rocket grinder Jeff Williams threw his body in front of a shot by Trent Dundas much to the delight and cheers from the Rocket bench.

As the period was drawing to a close, House scored his second of the night at 18:56 to give the Lincolns the lead at 3-2. Quite simply, the Lincolns outworked the Rockets for the tie-breaking goal.

Schrattner banged home his own rebound at 48 seconds of the third period to put the Lincolns back on top by a pair again. The goal brought an end to Gubbels’ night and Davies took the cage. Davies was forced to make just one save for the rest of the period.

Griffin gave the 245 Rocket fans some hope at 4:13 when he beat Vella with a shot through the five-hole with a dash down the left wing. Vella looked understandably fatigued on the play. It would be a save he would make on most nights.

Latina showed to his teammates that he had not given up on the game with a tremendous backchecking and shot blocking effort.

It appeared as if the Lincolns had given themselves a key insurance marker but the goal was waved off. A Lincoln player has slid into the net and made non-incidental contact with the goaltender. There was no penalty on the play, but also no goal on the play either.

Although the Rockets only had 13 shots on the period they missed many glorious opportunities by shooting wide. The hockey gods seemed to be looking out for the Lincolns on this night, and they earned it with a complete team effort. Playing for your playoff lives has a way of making that happen. There were some Lincoln players who shied away from body contact and seemed quite tentative about getting to the puck first. The Rockets were very physical and I’m not too sure if I would want to be first in the corner for a puck either.

With 1:21 remaining in regulation time and down by a goal, the Rockets called a timeout and pulled Davies for an extra attacker. The plan, as it has so often does for the Rockets this season, backfired. They failed to generate any offense or any shot on goal. House missed his hat trick when his shot from the blueline hit the post, but King put the final nail in the Rockets’ coffin with 32 seconds remaining.

In other action Tuesday night, St. Thomas had no problems with Lambton Shores easily beating them 7-2. The Stars’ sniper Carson Brookshaw moved to within a point of Western Conference scoring leader Predator Ethan Sarfati. Brookshaw had 2 goals and an assist while Sarfati collected a single assist.

As mentioned earlier Tooke had 8 shots for the Rockets. Latina had 7 while Fordy, Griffin, Steve Griggs and underage defenseman Jeff Clarke had 6 each.

The Lincolns outduelled the Rockets in the faceoff circle 46-45. Fordy and Codey McRoberts were the only Rocket centres who won more draws than they lost. Fordy was 11-7 while McRoberts was 11-8.

The Lincolns will travel to the Western Fair to play the London Nationals on Wednesday while the Rockets will be in LaSalle. Puck drop in LaSalle is 7pm, and 7:30 in London.

(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 had provided 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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