Perhaps “How To Eat An Elephant” is an odd title for a blog story about my reflections of a hockey game, but if you are the Strathroy Rockets, it is very pertinent.

After being narrowly edged by the second place London Nationals 4-3 at the Western Fair Community Centre on Sunday, March 6, 2016 in quarterfinal action in the Western Conference of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, the seventh-seed Rockets find themselves sitting in a precarious position. They now trail the best-of-seven series 3 games to 0 and will face elimination on Tuesday when they tangle with the Nationals at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre in Strathroy.

It is quite obviously a “do or die” situation for the Rockets. How do you approach an opponent that is as big and formidable as the London Nationals? It is impossible to win four games in one night. You can only win one game at a time. We have all seen it done before in all level of sports. Teams make remarkable comebacks. In our particular league I recall the 1998-99 season the Leamington Flyers finished in first place and looked practically unbeatable. They lost just five times in regulation time over a 52-game schedule. In the second round they were very quickly up 3 games to 0 over the Chatham Maroons. The sweep was inevitable; or was it? The Maroons stormed back winning four games to take the series.  It would be the second of four straight Western Junior B titles for the Maroons.  Chatham would advance that year and defeat the Stratford Cullitons in seven games to capture their only Sutherland Cup.

The Rockets must take things, one game at a time, one period at a time, one shift at a time. To answer the question on how to eat an elephant, the answer is quite obvious, one bite at a time.

From a question of territorial advantage, game three was the Rockets’ best effort. They were only outshot 38-25 over the sixty minutes and if not for a very strong opening period by the Nationals would have skated away with the victory. They outshot the Nationals 21-20 over the final two periods and outscored them 3-2. The Rockets dug themselves a 2-0 hole to dig out of in a first period where they were dominated by the Nationals. London outshot Strathroy 18-4 in the opening period.

There were some changes on both team’s rosters. The Rockets called up pepper pot Tristan Sedlak for some extra enthusiasm. Rocket scoring leader Shane Bulitka, who sat out the last few games of the regular season and certainly was not himself in the first two games of this series recovering from an upper body injury, was relegated to the fourth line and was likely only going to see spot duty and help out with the powerplay. That would change. For the London Nationals there was a surprise starter in goal. Connor Hughes, their designated number one netminder, was given the start. Hughes had missed the last 7 games of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs with an injury. He had not started a game in almost a month, February 10, a 5-3 win over first place Leamington.

Still absent from the Rockets’ lineup is forward Wesley Kelly. The hard working winger has been sidelined for the past 14 games after suffering a concussion in Leamington. The Nationals dominated the Rockets along the boards in this game, being first to the puck and winning many one-on-one battles. That ratio would be severely cut down with Kelly in the lineup for the Rockets. His work along the boards is exemplary.

So the stage was set and the Nationals burst out of the starting gate like they were on the race track at the Western Fair.

Tanner Ferreira got them on the board when his shot from the right side beat Rocket netminder Dane Gubbels at 6:19. It was a shot Gubbels would likely want to have back. The Rocket goaltender appeared to get a piece of it with his trapper before entering the net.

With the Rockets down by a goal and being strongly outplayed by the Nationals, the Rockets once more juggled their lines. Bulitka was put back on the top unit with Max Ewart and Dillon Saunders to try to curb the National assault.
With T.J. Harris serving a hooking penalty Rocket penalty killer Lucas Latina found himself on a shorthanded breakaway. Hughes did a great job of squaring up to the puck and denying the Latina scoring bid.

We had mentioned in our game two blog that National goaltender Zack Weir had better practice his breakaways as Steve Griggs and Nick Griffin each scored on breakaways. It looks like Hughes has this breakaway thing all figured out. Hughes would stop two other breakaways in the game, one by Ewart and the other by Griffin to preserve the win. All three were massive saves in a one-goal hockey game.

The Nationals took advantage of a poor line change by the Rocket defensemen on the big Olympic ice surface as Austin Kemp tallied his first of two on the night at 15:06 to give the Nationals a 2-0 cushion heading into the first intermission.

It is funny how this game can make an abrupt change on a dime. As the first period ended London defenseman Derek Di Iorio took a high sticking penalty. When Callum Ruddock took a head checking penalty just 55 seconds into the second period the Rockets quickly found themselves on a 5-on-3 advantage with two London defenseman in the penalty box.

The Rockets converted on both ends of the penalties to knot the game at 2-2. First Rocket captain Matt Laberge blasted a drive from the high slot past Hughes to cut the London lead to 2-1 at 1:41. Moments later Liam Fordy threaded the puck through traffic and past Hughes to tie the game at 2:21.

Less than three minutes later the Nationals regained the lead with Harris serving a tripping call. Defenseman Tyler Sehovic converted a backdoor play from Ferreira and Scott Goodman at 5:12. It was a textbook play that the Nationals were unable to complete the previous night in Strathroy.

Time to cue Connor Hughes. The Rockets had two golden opportunities to tie the match. First up was a shorthanded breakaway by Griffin that Hughes snared with a rapier quick trapper save. Moments later Ewart had another shorthanded breakaway attempt. Ewart decided to deke but Hughes stayed square to the Rocket forward cutting off the bottom of the net and Ewart simply ran out of real estate. I hope Weir was paying attention to these breakaway saves by Hughes.

It appeared as if Goodman had given the Nationals a key insurance marker from a huge scramble in front of the Rocket goal. Referees Rob Veccia and Glenn Anderson ruled that Goodman batted the puck into the Rocket goal with his glove. It was the correct call.

Seconds later Griffin buried Kyle Robinson with a crushing open ice hit. For some reason hockey players get real upset when a little guy throws his weight around. It was Griffin’s second big hit of the game and it elevated the game into a more physical contest much to the delight of the rather light crowd of 538 fans, many of which were from Strathroy. It was nice to see Strathroy win the weekend attendance battle. The Rockets drew 639 fans to the WMMC the previous night. Kudos to the many Rocket fans whom came out to support their team.

It was a very nice bounce back period for the Rockets. They outshot the Nationals 11-10, but still trailed 3-2 on the scoreboard after two periods.

The Rockets tied the game for the second time when defensemen Evan Hogg and Noah Tooke left the puck for Latina deep in the Rocket zone. Latina weaved his way through the Nationals, gained the zone and launched a shot towards Hughes. Quite simply, the London goaltender whiffed on the shot and the Rockets found themselves even with the Nationals again.

Latina has struggled in the later part of the season and in the playoffs. He carried this club on his back for most of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is playing hurt. He is certainly struggling in the faceoff circle. Occasionally he took himself out of the draw for linemate Keiran Milne. Rocket coach Brendan Riggin has relied heavily on Latina when he needs a key faceoff win. In game two Latina won just 7 of 26 faceoffs (26.9%), nowhere near his season average of well over 50%. In the Rocket defensive zone Latina battled but won just 2 of 13 faceoffs. Latina is an enigma. He plays on the edge and I love him for it. He is a tough player to play against and one that every team in the league would want on their roster. Latina is not unhinged like the Beauchamp brothers were. He is a composed tough competitor.

As the two clubs were inching closer to overtime for the second time in two nights, a questionable slashing call on Ewart would be the deciding factor in the game. London defenseman Ruddock was pinching along the right boards extending his reach with one hand on his stick to try to chip the puck deep into the Rockets’ corner. Ewart knocked Ruddock’s stick out of his hand while attacking the puck. It was a weak call in my books, especially late in a tied playoff game.

The Nationals tallied the game winner on a gorgeous tic-tac-toe play with Brenden Trottier and Rai Di Loreto setting up Kemp at 14:27. It would stand up as Kemp’s second game winner of the series.

Trottier got a little too lippy following the goal and was assessed a 10-minute misconduct for inciting. Scott Dorian was given an inciting misconduct 48 seconds into the final period. Rocket defenseman Jeff Clark and Di Orrio were also given inciting misconducts 96 seconds into the game. I’m glad to see that the on-ice officials are following my blog as I was upset with the absence of misconducts that were not issued in game two. It is one thing to beat a team on scoreboard and another to lose all respect for sportsmanship.

The Rockets had plenty of chances to tie the game as Ruddock was given an interference penalty at the 16-minute mark. A minute and a half later Latina was also given an interference penalty for tripping London forward Kevin Madden behind the play with his skate. I’m not sure if that was intentional or if it was a beautifully executed dive. I’ll have to ask Lucas about that one. With 70 seconds left in regulation time Sehovic was ushered to the penalty box for a head check. It was a foolish penalty incurred after the whistle that put the result in jeopardy for the Nationals. The Rockets pulled Gubbels for the extra attacker. There were some hairy moments around the National goal, but Hughes and his mates managed to hold the Rockets at bay.

Third period shots were even at 10-10.  The Rockets went 2 for 6 with the man advantage.  The Nationals were 2 for 8 along with three monumental shorthanded breakaway saves by Hughes.

If the Nationals do advance their defensemen are going to have to be a little more conservative at the blueline.  They take way too many chances.  A better team will eat them alive.

So as the Nationals skated off the ice with visions of advancing into the semifinals, the Rockets contemplated on how to eat an elephant – one bite at a time.

The Rockets will get their forks and knives out to see if they can take the first bite out of the Nationals on Tuesday at the WMMC. It will be a feast for the eyes.

(photo credit – The heart and soul of the London Nationals, Tim Bell waving the Nationals’ colours. – 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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