Strathroy Rocket head coach Brendan Riggin has said that this season is one huge learning curve for his young squad. With 17 rookies on the roster, there has been a lot to learn. The tight scores of most of their games this year bodes well for the future if this squad can stay together, but it is the here and now where all eyes are firmly focused. Only 20-year-olds Kieran Milne and captain Matt Laberge will not be eligible to return next season. Underager Shane Bulitka, a second round pick of the Sudbury Wolves and the Rockets’ scoring leader last season, could very well find himself up permanently next season with the OHL club. Bulitka’s totals were the lowest numbers for a Rocket/Blade team scoring leader in their 48-year history, breaking the low totals set by former Blade Jason Glover, now the head coach of the St. Marys Lincolns.

The 2015-16 Rockets will go down in the record books as the only Rocket or Blade team in franchise history to average less than 3 goals a game yet make the playoffs. That fact combined with the fact that the Rockets did not win a single game this season unless they scored 4 goals or more has put them at a huge disadvantage before the ref drops the puck to begin the contest.

A little tweaking of their goals for and goals against next season should put them on the win side of the ledger more often than naught.

However this season, getting leads and holding on to them has also been a problem for the Rockets late in the season. On back-to-back home games at the end of January the Rockets saw 3-0 leads disappear in losses to London and Sarnia.

I’m sure that Nationals’ head coach Pat Powers reminded his troops of that fact after second place London trailed 2-0 after one period and 3-1 after forty-minutes to the seventh place Rockets at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre on Saturday, March 5, 2016 in Western Conference quarter-final action of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

As expected the game was a fast-tempo physical one from the onset to 4:46 of the first overtime period when a desperation shot from a near impossible angle by John Adams, (the hockey player, not the second president of the United States – he died in 1826) somehow found its way behind Dane Gubbels in the Rocket net and gave the Nationals a 2 games to 0 series lead. Gubbels may have been expecting a pass and left his goal post a little too early.

The Rockets now find themselves in the unenviable position of having to win 4 of the next 5 games to claim victory, including possibly 3 wins on London ice, a tough situation for any club but more so for an inexperienced squad like the Rockets, who won just 5 games on the road this year, against a seasoned bunch of vets like the Nationals. Not impossible, but certainly very unlikely. Even the most diehard Rocket fans would have them sitting on the outside looking in early next week, but it is why we continue to watch, to see the unexpected, the miraculous. I for one would love to see the Rockets extend this series into a game 6 next Saturday at the WMMC or a breathtaking game 7 a week from Monday at the Western Fair in London. It can happen, especially at this level.

The Rockets got off to an early lead, a key ingredient to any successful playoff team. Milne smacked home a juicy rebound from a hard-driving Nick Griffin on a 2-on-two rush just 96 seconds into the contest.

The Nationals thought they had tied the score, and so did most of the 639 fans in attendance but referees Darcy Vink and Kyle Mellor waved the goal off ruling that the net had come off of its moorings before the puck crossed the line. It was a bang-bang play and a tough call for the officials with Gubbels sliding from his right to his left and the shot coming in from the opposite side.

The refs had their hands full with the nasty element that erupted from the beginning of the game. There were numerous confrontations following most whistles that I felt the officials were a little too lenient with. Sending just one player to the box or handing out some inciting misconducts would have added to the flow of the game. It is a difficult balance for the officials to obtain, especially in a playoff game. The whistles were put away in the third period and overtime. The Rockets would convert 1 of 6 chances while the Nationals failed on all 5 chances. Both teams had 8 powerplay shots on goal.

Shortly later it appeared as if the Nationals had scored again. A shot took a very strange redirection in front of Gubbels. After a delayed reaction the London sticks went up in the air, however when the refs checked, the puck was on the outside of the netting, not on the inside.

With former Rocket Trevor Dulong off serving a goaltender interference call, Max Ewart tipped a Laberge point shot past Zack Weir to give the Rockets a 2-0 lead at 13:01. Dulong was an outstanding rookie with the Rockets during the 2012-13 season. The rambunctious forward spent the following season with the Ottawa 67s before deciding to return and play in London. It was a great loss for the Rockets. Dulong’s presence in a Rocket sweater instead of a National one would have likely turned this match into a win for the Rockets, and many more in the regular season.

Despite the 2-0 Rocket lead, Strathroy was outshot 18-11 in the opening period.

Scott Dorion, who was likely the most dangerous London player in the game, cut the Rocket lead to 2-1 at 14:02 of the second period. Quite simply Dorion outworked the entire Rocket team. It was an excellent example of a player who would not quit on a play.

The Rockets had an excellent opportunity to get that goal back when Tyler Sehovic was assessed a 4-minute penalty for high sticking at 15:00. The Nationals’ penalty killers did an outstanding job. Weir was forced to make only two routine saves from Laberge and Bulitka.

With GOJHL regular season penalty leader Lucas Latina off for a foolish roughing after the whistle penalty at 18:54, the Nationals had a golden opportunity to tie the game before the second intermission.

However it was Griffin who managed to tip a point shot to the speedy Steve Griggs who outraced the Nationals down the ice and picked the open side past Weir for a shorthanded marker to give the Rockets a 3-1 lead after two periods.
Gubbels continued to keep the Nationals at bay as the Rockets were outshot 17-9 in the second period and 35-20 after two periods. Trainer Mike Brooks must have run out of ice packs following the game as the Rockets sacrificed their bodies time and time again blocking National scoring attempts.

Dulong converted a cross-crease pass on a London rush at 4:37 to score the proximity goal and cut the Strathroy lead to 3-2.

Just 1:52 later Scott Goodman banged in his second rebound past Gubbels as the Nationals stormed the Rocket goal to tie the game at 3-3.

The onslaught continued for the next 7 minutes as the Nationals pressed the Rockets for the go ahead goal. It resembled an extended powerplay as London constantly pressured Gubbels and the Rockets. With the Rockets on the verge of giving up the lead for the first time in the game a shaft of light suddenly appeared in the form of sprightly Nick Griffin. The veteran stripped London defenseman Matt Doty of the puck at the Rockets’ blueline and raced down the ice beating Weir with a nice deke. Perhaps Weir needs to work on those breakaways.

With the Rocket lead restored to 4-3 and time dwindling down, Kevin Madden smacked a rebound past Gubbels with 4:02 remaining in regulation time to tie the match at 4-4, force overtime and set up the overtime winner from President Adams.

London outshot Strathroy 18-6 in the third period and 53-26 over three periods. Overtime shots favoured London 5-2 and 58-28 over the entire game.

Five different goal scorers from the Nationals displayed a lovely balanced scoring attack. The Nationals have more than doubled the shot output from the Rockets in both games, 51-23 in game one and 58-28 in game two.
Gubbels was clearly the star of the game for the Rockets. His efforts alone put his teammates in a position to win the game. The London defense was incredibly aggressive in the small confines of West Middlesex. With 5,280 less square feet of ice to deal with and bluelines 8 feet closer to the goals than at the Western Fair, the London defense were constantly pinching and taking huge risks at the blueline. It cost them dearly on the Griggs and Griffin breakway goals.

London never had a lead in the game until the OT winner. They managed to tie the game twice at 3-3 and 4-4 before Adams’ heroics.

You would think by now that the Rockets would have this overtime thing figured out. It was their 18th overtime game this season. They have won just 3 of those games. Perhaps they are saving the best for last. A few OT wins against the Nationals now would be just what the doctor ordered.

They will have little time to lick their wounds as the two clubs head back into action Sunday night at the Western Fair beginning at 7:30pm. It is a massive game, a London win gives them a commanding 3-0 lead; a Rocket win and the series is cut back to 2-1. Regardless, it is very exciting and entertaining hockey.

(photo credit – Colleen Weindels 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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