NATIONALS SUBDUE ROCKETS IN GAME ONE
First off, my apologies to followers, lovers and haters of this blog, as I have not written in a while. I’ve been a little under the weather, both mentally and physically, and have not had the stamina to sit in front of the computer.
Before we get to the game I would like to congratulate my former right hand man, Joe Brooks. The long-time Rocket equipment manager was honoured at the Western Conference Awards Banquet in Leamington last Monday as Mark Tuck presented Joe with his Western Conference Convenor’s Award. I wish I would have been able to be there and witness the event. It is the highest award that can be bestowed to anyone in the Conference by the Conference itself. Joe was a former deserving winner of the Kelly Hearn Award as the Western Conference Volunteer of the Year, an honour that has eluded my grasp and likely always will. He has also been deservedly inducted into the Strathroy Rockets/Blades Wall of Fame. Joe is a former Rocket board of director member and served admirably for years as my vice president. For the Brooks, it is a family affair. Joe’s son Mike began as little nipper and is now highly regarded as one of the most highly respected trainers in the OHA. Daughter Stacy, was one of my top journalists writing tremendous player profiles for “Rocket Rumours” as well as demonstrating her knowledge of the game by charting some wicked stats for me. Stacy, now a feature writer for the OHA and Overtime Sports Nation, was also the administrator of this blog before handing the torch to me this year. Wife Kathy has worked tirelessly behind the scenes, sewing on name bars, and repairing all those sweaters and socks. It is an incredible family affair and my life is blessed to be associated with all these wonderful people.
Now back to the task at hand, the number 7 seed, Strathroy against the Goliath number 2 seed, the London Nationals. Unlike our Bible story of the youthful King David, it seems highly unlikely that the Rockets have big enough stones in their sling to slay the giant in front of them. But that is why we play the series. Incredible upsets do happen. It happened to the Rockets just a few years ago when the seventh seed St. Thomas Stars delivered the death blow to the second place Strathroy Rockets in the opening round. It marked the first time in league history that a seventh seed took out a second seed until the 7th seeded London Nationals ousted the 2nd seeded Chatham Maroons in last year’s playoffs. The big difference now is video and coaching. The Rockets were said to be “out-coached” in that series. Ron Horvat certainly did an excellent job of looking at the video and putting a plan in place to stop the high-flying Rockets. The Stars all bought into it and executed it very well. The Rockets’ humiliation didn’t last long as the Stars then knocked out the number one seed, London Nationals, I believe, in the semi-finals.
Can the Rockets replicate the feat? What has to happen for them to get past a foe that they only managed to defeat once in six outings this season – a 4-0 shutout at the Western Fair with the departed Mat Ouellet in goal? Is it conceivable? Of course it is. I can look back at a Rocket season that ended badly where I was president. We swept the Aylmer Aces 8 games to 0 during the regular season but lost in 6 games in the opening round to the Aces. They don’t call it the second season for nothing. We couldn’t get a ping pong ball past Aylmer goaltender Denver England with a howitzer in that series. The St. Thomas Stars needed overtime in game 7 to narrowly get past Aylmer in the next round.
The difference between the Western Fair and West Middlesex Memorial Centre couldn’t be bigger. The largest ice surface in the West (along with Leamington), a massive 200’ x 100’ Olympic-sized pad in London, compared to the tiniest ice surface in the West, a miniscule 184’ x 80’.
More than just the ice, there is a big difference in fan support, or more precisely fan intensity. The Nats have drawn well that last few years, but generally the fans sit there and watch the game like they are at home with their feet up watching it on the telly. Not so at West Middlesex. The fans are close, sometimes nasty and very vocal. The Nats had better have selected hearing because if a fan (by the way “fan” is an abbreviated word for “fanatic”) wants to tell an opposing player how they feel about them, they will hear it in technicolour. Chatham is easily the most difficult rink to play in, but West Middlesex on a nasty night isn’t far behind.
It wasn’t until my blog writing companion Scott Holland in Leamington began interviewing players for profiles this season that I realized how many players despised playing in Strathroy. By far it was the most hated rink to play in the Western Conference. The Rockets must use that to their advantage.
They say you are never in trouble until you lose a game at home in the playoffs. That being said the Rockets must hold serve at the WMMC and steal one at the Western Fair – a difficult feat, but not an impossible one.
After dropping a 7-2 decision to the Nats in game one at the Western Fair on Wednesday, the biggest game of the series will game two at the WMMC on Saturday. A blind person should be able to watch that game. It will be savagely physical. The Rockets will attempt to pound the Nats into submission. When the youthful Rockets are united to a single cause they are a frustratingly difficult team to play against, especially at the WMMC and especially with a packed house of rabid Rocket fans, or should I say, fanatics.
Discipline, execution, intensity, patience and creativity are the five elements of a championship hockey club. Discipline will raise its ugly head on Saturday.
The Nats powered their way to that 7-2 win in game one with 3 powerplay goals, and that without John Warren, likely the most skilled and dangerous player in the entire Western Conference. Warren is trying to recover from his second concussion of the season. The Rockets had the third worst PK in the 25-team GOJHL. That obviously has to get a lot better for the Rockets to enjoy any success. The best way to kill off a penalty is not to take one. The Rockets had a penalty free game against their bitter rival Sarnia earlier in the season. Perhaps they can do that again. If you aren’t taking a goal way from your opponent, especially in the playoffs, you had better not be heading towards the penalty box. Those penalties in the offensive zone are killers.
Goaltending. The Nationals broke open a tight 1-1 game with 4 second period goals in 6 minutes and 9 seconds. That brought the end to Rocket goaltender Dane Gubbels’ night. He allowed 5 goals on 29 shots. Dan Davies came on in relief allowing 2 goals on 22 shots. Both Rocket goaltenders played well and could not be faulted for the loss. But here is the problem, the Rockets are not going to win this series with “good” goaltending, they are going to win it with phenomenal goaltending. Both of these netminders can do this. I’ve seen them play phenomenally well. They have to elevate their games to that level or the Rockets are pooched.
The Rockets were outshot 51-23, more than double. It took the Rockets over half a game to even get 10 shots on goal. They have to do a better job attacking and spend less time defending. Yeah, I know. Easier said than done. Lower ranked teams have to be opportunistic scorers. The Nats are only going to give the Rockets so many chances. So are the refs. They need to capitalize. A lucky bounce here or there wouldn’t hurt either and the WMMC is a great rink for odd bounces and strange deflections.
Back to game two on Saturday. It will be a madhouse and if the Rockets drop that contest their season will be in serious jeopardy, especially with the game three back in London on Sunday. They could find themselves down 3-0 mighty quick and facing elimination next Tuesday back at the WMMC. A big win in game two changes everything, especially if they can ride that wave into the Western Fair on Sunday and take game three from the Nats and steal home ice.
The Nats took their foot off the pedal late in the season. They coasted into that number two seed and barely made it. They were awarded second place on the tie break with LaSalle who tied them for second place. The Vipers actually won the season series with London earning 7 points to the Nats’ six. Unfortunately for the Vipers that extra point earned from an overtime loss does not factor into the tie-breaker equation like it does in the OHL. The Nats seemed to be able to jump start the engine adequately in game one, but adequately is not going to win a game for you at the WMMC. London is going to have to be at the top of their game to earn a 2-0 series lead. It will be a feast for the eyes to see – whether you can see or not. We have waited all season for this game. It is going to be dynamite.
(photo credit – Derek Berg)
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.