ASHES ARE BURNING
Walking to last night’s game at the WMMC in Strathroy between the Rockets and the visiting London Nationals, I was listening to “Ashes are Burning”, by the seminal progressive rock band “Renaissance”. It was an apt tune to be listening to just prior to the start of one of the most memorable games in Strathroy junior hockey history. It was a game for the ages, breaking franchise records and conjuring images of former glory days of fabled Rocket and Blades teams risen from the ashes.
It was game 4 of a best-of-seven set in which the Rockets trailed 3 games to 0 and were quite obviously facing elimination. They were playing for their very lives and every Rocket played the game as if every shift would be the last one of their lives.
The end result, a 5-0 shutout, a rarity itself in Strathroy playoff history, was total domination by the Strathroy Rockets. The London Nationals were out-played in every aspect of the game. They were pounded by the Rockets from the drop of the puck. It was now Strathroy who were beating the Nationals to the corners for the puck. It was now the Rockets that were winning the one-on-one battles. And it was now the London Nationals, who found themselves sitting on the ice shaking their heads after crushing body checks from one of the Rockets’ mighty mites.
It was quite simply a Rocket team that would not accept defeat. They adapted a “take no prisoners” approach to the game. There were no passengers on this hockey club. It was a laissez-faire attitude on behalf of the Nationals. They acted as if the game and the series should just be handed to them. They are after all the powerful second seed and the Rockets a lowly seventh seed; they lead the series 3-0 so the Rockets should just do the noble thing and fall on their sword and accept their ultimate fate. This attitude of entitlement had been a difficult thing for coaching staffs in London to overcome with a group of cocky, prima donnas. Pat Powers is a great coach. He has a little work ahead of him to get his troops refocused. London has been notorious for just putting out enough effort to win a game, and not much more. We will see a better effort for them in game five? Most likely yes. They clearly became unhinged in this game. Will the Nationals win this series? Most likely. Overcoming a 3 games to 0 deficit is very rare. The Rockets set a couple of franchise records in this game. Can they set one more? No Strathroy team in their 48-year history has ever won a series when trailing 3 games to nothing. Can they add a new chapter to their history book? It will be fun watching.
The first change that I noticed in game four was that Rocket coach Brendan Riggin started with the Lucas Latina line. I don’t think I’ve seen that in a while. My first thought was that Lucas was out there to stir up some shit and that he likely wasn’t going to get off the ice without taking or drawing a penalty. It was a little of both. There were three short plays in the opening 40 seconds. Latina ran at everything wearing a blue and white sweater, mostly after, and sometimes well after, the whistle. He along with Rocket captain Matt Laberge and Nat Max Vinogradov all went to the box for roughing after the whistle.
The stage was set.
The Nationals thought they had opened the scoring on the ensuing powerplay but that wobbly net was off of its moorings once again to nullify the goal.
When Noah Tooke was off serving a tripping call shades of things to come reared its ugly lead. Rocket playoff scoring leader Nick Griffin stripped the puck from Kyle Robinson and raced down the ice on a shorthanded breakaway attempt only to be stopped by Zack Weir.
At 7:10 the Rockets opened the scoring. It would turn out to be the game winner and it was provided by an unlikely source, in Rocket underage defenseman Jeff Clarke. While London was under some pressure in their own end Clarke intercepted a poor clearing attempt by the National defense at the top of the faceoff circle. His shot beat Weir cleanly. Pointstreak had two assists on the play but it was clearly an unassisted goal. The Nationals were starting to become their own worst enemy.
Clarke is a London Knight draft pick and is a natural Dale Hunter type of player. He is tough and fearless, backs down to no one and from the number of Knight scouts that have been out this season to see the boy play and chat with him following the games, he might find himself in the OHL next season.
I mentioned that the opening goal came from an unlikely source – Clarke failed to score a goal in 50 regular season games this season.
It was a fairly evenly played first period. The Rockets scored the lone goal and fittingly had one more shot on goal, 13-12. Both clubs won 14 faceoffs, a marked improvement for the Rockets from previous games in the series.
The outcome of the game was decided in the first 80 seconds of the second period.
Griffin split the London defense of Derek Di Iorio and Matt Doty, who was spread way too far apart, slipped in on goal and beat Weir with a shot to his stick side just 47 seconds into the period.
Twelve seconds later Shane Bulitka intercepted a poor London pass in the neutral zone, crossed the blueline and flew by Sam Harris, who lost an edge and fell, and made quick work of Weir to put the Rockets up 3-0 with another unassisted marker.
It entered the record books, compiled by league historian Scott Holland in Leamington, as the fastest two goals by two players in Strathroy playoff history. It beat the previous mark of 13 seconds set by Max Campbell and Joe McDonough at 15:25 and 15:38 of the third period against the Sarnia Legionnaires in game four of the 2007 finals on April 1st.
The Rockets were not finished yet. They blitzkrieged the London net. Dillon Saunders slammed the puck past a helpless Weir 21 seconds later sending the 393 Rocket fans into delirium. The Nationals’ crease looked like the city of London following a Nazi bombing raid in the Second World War. The 3 goals in 33 seconds also entered the Rockets’ record book. It was also 3 Rocket goals on 3 consecutive Rocket shots. Despite scoring three goals in such a quick succession the Rockets actually lost the faceoff at centre ice following the first goal by Griffin and the second by Bulitka. I’ve got a feeling that the Nationals aren’t going to take such a leisurely approach to the game in game five in London the following night.
London coach Pat Powers called a time out to settle the troops, but too much damage was already done. Powers displayed some nice confidence in his goaltender by keeping Weir in goal.
The Rockets continued to lay on the body. Max Ewart laid out Scott Dorian and Kieran Milne flattened Harris. With the game that Harris and his defense were having they should have likely stayed at home and sent an 8” X 10” glossy.
Second period shots favoured the Rockets 19-12. The Rockets also led in the faceoff department, 17-13.
The third period yielded just a single goal. Griffin set up Latina with a pass from behind the London net on a 5-on-3 opportunity. Technically it was not a 5-on-3 goal as Latina scored the exact second when Tyler Sehovic’s double minor for butt-ending had expired.
There was a constant parade to the penalty box and several lengthy delays as the referees Justin Webb and Chris Thornton tried to sort out the penalties and explain their decisions to the respective benches.
By the time the game was over the Nationals had given the Rockets five 5-on-3 opportunities. I can’t recall a team ever getting five two-man advantages in a single game. The Rockets failed to score on all of them, however the Latina goal came just as the two-man advantage expired.
About the only thing that looked good for the Nationals was their penalty killing. It was stellar, and so was the penalty killing for the Rockets. It was likely the best display of penalty killing that I have witnessed by any Rocket team in recent memory. They kept a tight box, didn’t over commit, and blocked shots as well as any team I have ever seen.
The powerplay numbers were unbelievable. The Rockets were 1 for 11, with five 5-on-threes while the Nationals were unsuccessful in 5 chances. Strathroy finished the game with 28 powerplay shots on goal while London had 10.
Third period shots were 20-7 for Strathroy giving them a 52-31 advantage over the entire match. The Rockets won 17 faceoffs in the third period, while the Nationals won just 9. By game’s end the Rockets won 48 draws while the Nationals won 36. Over half of the Rockets’ shots on goal in the game came via the powerplay (53.8%).
Dan Gubbels was outstanding in goal for the Rockets particularly during Rocket penalty kills. The shutout was the first of his career. Playoff shutouts are very rare in Strathroy hockey history. It is only the sixth playoff shutout in 48 years by any Rocket goaltender and just the fourth ever witnessed at West Middlesex Memorial Centre.
The last Rocket playoff shutout came on March 27, 2007 when Justin Rosthlingshoefer blanked the Sarnia Legionnaires 3-0 in the league finals at the WMMC.
The last time London was shutout in a playoff game was Mar 9, 2006 when the St. Marys Lincolns won a tight 1-0 match in game 7 of the quarterfinals.
The last time London was shutout this season was by Mat Ouellet and the Rockets by a 4-0 score at the Western Fair on November 18, 2015.
As the fans exited the rink another display of poor sportsmanship was taking place on the ice. The Nationals had scooped up the game puck. Most winning teams in the post season collect the game puck and display them in the dressing room. It was the Rockets’ first playoff win in 3 seasons as well as Gubbels first ever shutout. The on-ice officials were speaking with the National equipment personnel at the London bench about the puck as I left. It is unknown by this writer if the officials were ever to retrieve the game winning puck.
The saga continues……
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.