STRATHROY ROCKETS SUBDUED; LONDON NATIONALS ADVANCE

ROCKETS SUBDUED; NATIONALS ADVANCE

The season is officially over for the Strathroy Rockets.

As for the London Nationals, the second season has moved on to the semi-finals and a much tougher adversary.

The end came for the Rockets at the Western Fair Community Centre on Wednesday, March 9 by a 6-2 score the day after the Rockets extended the series and elimination with a dominating 5-0 whitewashing over the Nationals at the WMMC in Strathroy the night before. It gave the Rockets and their many devoted supporters a glimmer of hope, but that flickering flame was quickly extinguished by the Nationals in game five.

If the Nationals can make it to the finals and are unsuccessful in their bid for the league title as well as a wild card berth, they may very well look back at a match at the WMMC on March 8 that cost them a trip to the Sutherland Cup playoffs.

They took their foot off the pedal for a moment, underestimated a diligent working, less skilled and experienced hockey club that would not be swept in four straight games. The Rockets would not accept defeat. It was a magnificent win for the Rockets and one that will linger in the player’s and supporter’s minds for a long time. They avoided a sweep, something that Rocket teams from the two previous years, versus LaSalle and Chatham were unable to do. Previous to that the last time the Rockets had won a playoff game was in the 2012-13 semi-finals against Chatham which they dropped in six games.

This series marked only the fifth time that London and Strathroy have met in the postseason. London has won four of those series. Strathroy’s only series win occurred the first time these two franchises met in the playoffs. They were known as the Blades then. London was known as the Chester Pegg Diamonds. It was the 1978-79 season, a team that I often refer to as the finest club that this franchise has ever iced. They swept London in four straight games in the semi-finals. The Blades would then suffer the same fate at the hands of an incredibly strong Windsor Royals squad in the league finals.

The second meeting was the following season in 1979-80. That was a London 4-game sweep in the semi-finals. Incredibly the two teams would not meet again for 21 years. It was a 15-year-old Jeff Carter leading the Rockets in scoring in both the regular season and playoffs, but the Nationals would easily sweep the Rockets in 4 games in the opening round. I do recall an absolutely incredible shorthanded goal by Carter that certainly foreshadowed his illustrious future. The two clubs would hook up again in the 2011-12 finals with London taking the championship in 6 games. So it appears that the Rockets have never won a playoff series against London with the Blades picking up the only win 37 years ago.

This year’s Rocket squad is being billed as an overachieving hockey club. They are indeed a club which proved quite a deal under some very unique and difficult circumstances. They finished the season with 17 rookies. And speaking of rookies, they were guided by a rookie coaching staff. It was Brendan Riggin’s first year as a head coach and the first season as assistant coaches for Brayden Abraham and former Rocket playoff hero Jason Furlong. They had a coaching change early in the year with the departure of seasoned veteran coach Mike Herman. That suddenly moved Abraham from his role up in the press box from video coach, analysing the Steva program, to a bench coach. It was also the rookie season for new general manager Mike Bondy from his role as former head coach. It is an overwhelming position for anyone tackling a GM role in Junior hockey. Guiding the Rocket ship was a rookie president in business owner Don Windsor, an incredibly difficult position for someone parachuted to head up a primarily new board of directors with no hockey experience. It was almost like this was a new team just granted admission as a new franchise.

Did they overachieve? They did manage to finish in seventh place in the nine-team conference ahead of eighth place St. Marys and last place Lambton Shores. There were moments during the season when they were nearly caught by the Lincolns, but the Rockets were able to dig a little deeper and open up a comfortable lead over the Lincolns and the Predators.

The Rockets finished the season with 12 wins, 9 of which came in regulation time. The 3 overtime wins all came over St. Marys (1) and Lambton Shores (2). They split the season series with St. Marys but cleaned up with Lambton Shores. The Rockets took 5 of the 6 games from the Preds, two of which came in overtime. The remaining game ended in a tie.

Eighteen of the 38 points earned in the season came at the expense of the two squads lower than them in the standings. Looking at the six teams above them in the standings, they earned just 4 wins on the season, two against LaSalle and single wins against London and St. Thomas. The Rockets failed to win any games against Leamington, Chatham and Sarnia. They did earn 10 big points from overtime losses and four more from double overtime ties. That fact alone gives them great hope and promise for the future. They were very close in turning a lot of losses and ties into wins.

They were the only Strathroy team in the club’s 48-year history to average less than 3 goals a game yet make the playoffs; a clear indicator or how weak the bottom three teams in the Conference truly were and how much firepower the Rockets had lost.

They faced more adversity when they lost their top goaltender, Mat Ouellet, and in my opinion the top goaltender in the Western Conference, and leading scorer Riley O’Connell by December 1st as the two players returned home to play at the Junior C level – a massive loss on the ice and for team morale – but they perservered on.

A quick peek over at the Junior C Exeter Hawks would reveal enough former Rockets to easily put this club into the top four teams in the conference this season, a very bitter pill to swallow.

The Rockets lose just two players to age, captain and defenseman Matt Laberge and forward Kieran Milne. Milne was only one of three Rocket players to tip the scales at 200lb or more. Newcomers Jeff Williams and Liam Fordy, acquired near the trade deadline, are the other two. This was a very small club that took its bumps but seldom quit. Getting some bigger players next year would certainly help winning those one-on-one battles and fighting for position in front of the net.

Everyone else is eligible to return. Their two underagers, scoring leader Shane Bulitka and tough defenseman Jeff Clarke may find themselves in the OHL next season with the Sudbury Wolves and the London Knights. With most players finishing high school as 17-year-olds, hockey teams often lose a player or two every year as they go off to college or university.

Next year this could be a veteran laden club on the ice. Some of these players may grow an inch or two and fill out putting on a little more muscle and weight in the off season. They now have a better understanding of what is required to play at this level. The learning process is a tough one for players, coaches, general managers, presidents and board of directors, but the rewards are beyond description when that player wearing the “C” on his sweater raises that cup over his head.

The Nationals, who often save their best hockey for the playoffs, are still hoping that could happen this year for them. They are a difficult team to play against for a variety of reasons and they have many dangerous weapons at their disposal.

They wasted little time at asserting their dominance over the Rockets in the deciding game of this series.
One would think by now that Rocket rookie Matthew Stevens would know when he has to be off the ice after warm-up. For those who don’t know the protocol, a buzzer is sounded with 2 minutes remaining in warm-up. All of the visiting players must exit the ice prior to the one-minute warning. The home team must be off the ice prior to the clock reaching zero. Any player not off the ice in time is assessed a warm-up violation penalty, a two-minute minor penalty for delay of game. And so it is that the Rockets were forced to begin the game, the most important game of the year, killing off a penalty as Mr. Stevens couldn’t get his keester off the ice in time.

As fate would have it, the Nationals converted on the powerplay and Stevens hung his head and returned to the Rocket bench. Scott Goodman beat Dane Gubbels with a nice shot from the right side at 1:38. The stage was set and the Nationals were off and running and didn’t quit.

At 4:31 Dalton Good went off for the Rockets on a questionable kneeing penalty. It was one of those questionable calls where the referee in close proximity and in good position to see the play does not put up his hand and the ref about 100 feet away makes the call. Man I hate those.

London did not score on the powerplay but were now up 8-0 on the shot clock and all of the game’s momentum had swung into their favour.

Former Rocket rookie sensation Trevor Dulong scored on the rush on a 3-on-2 break to give the Nationals a 2-0 lead at the 15-minute mark.

London headed to the first intermission with a 2-0 lead and leading 11-8 on the shot clock. The Rockets attempted to scratch and claw themselves back into the game outshooting the Nationals 8-3 in the final stages of the opening period. Connor Hughes had a solid first period in goal for London.

At 2:57 of the second period a Tyler Sehovic blast from the centre point position found the back of the Rocket net through traffic to put the Nationals up 3-0. The goal was originally awarded to John Adams and changed back to Sehovic. It would eventually be the series winning goal.

With National Jordan Di Cicco off serving a too many players on the ice penalty, Austin Kemp had an excellent opportunity with a shorthanded breakaway attempt. Gubbels managed to get a piece of Kemp’s shot and the puck rang off the post and stayed out of the net.

When Rocket T.J. Harris took a tripping penalty, Adams put the game out of reach for the Rockets at 15:21 on the powerplay with a shot from the high slot.

The real back-breaker came with 34 seconds left in the middle frame when the Nationals ran the score up to 5-0. It was an odd play. Kyle Robinson was hammered by Rocket defenseman Dalton Good in the Rocket defensive zone at the faceoff dot to the left of Gubbels with a clean check. Robinson stayed dazed on the ice for several seconds. As soon as he got to his feet he received the puck from defenseman Derek Di Iorio. Robinson then made a delicious pass across the seam to Brenden Trottier who made no mistake from his back door position. It was a great goal and destroyed the Rockets.

Second period shots favoured the Nationals 15-9. They led 26-17 in shots over two periods.

Facing a five-goal deficit heading into the third period, the Rockets came out and did what any club would want to do in a similar position. It wasn’t likely that they would outscore the Nationals by five goals or more in the period, but they dearly wanted to end their season on a positive note by winning the period; and that is exactly what they did.

With Sehovic off serving a high sticking penalty at 2:41, Dillon Saunders converted some nice passing and playmaking by linemates Shane Bulitka and Max Ewart to break Hughes’ shutout bid and get on the scoresheet. The goal was significant. Never in playoff history between these two teams had London ever shutout Strathroy. That record remains unblemished.

Quickly off a faceoff win to the right of Gubbels, Goodman tallied his second goal of the night stepping around Lucas Latina and beating Gubbels at 8:38. I’m not sure how defensemen Di Loreto and Sehovic earned assists on a play that took a second and half from the drop of the puck to the red light going on.  Once again we see an excellent example of how scoring can be verified from FastHockey, the GOJHL’s live streaming service.

When Goodman went off for a tripping call at 9:03, Saunders, Bulika and Ewart hooked up again with Saunders netting his second goal of the period at 10:05 to bring the score to 6-2.

The Rockets ended up winning the third period 2-1 and outshooting the Nationals 11-9, a commendable performance in their final period of their season.

Final shots favoured London 35-28. Both teams would convert twice on the powerplay. The Rockets had 7 chances, the Nationals had 4.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Rockets maintained possession in their own zone. As the buzzer sounded a Rocket player bent over and picked up the game puck from the ice. A National player skated over asking for the momento. The previous night the Nationals had nabbed the game puck in the Rockets’ lone win of the series and Dane Gubbels’ first ever shutout. One would have to wonder if an exchange of pucks happened off-ice.

It was a well played series. There were some dicey moments and emotions ran high at times, but that is to be expected in any playoff series. Tempers were kept primarily under control. No fights erupted throughout the five games, an event that likely would have happened on more than one occasion if a game ejection was not the end result of fisticuffs.

The London Nationals await their semi-final opponent. The top seeded Leamington Flyers swept the eighth place St. Marys Lincolns in 4-straight games and will play the lowest seeded team to advance out of the quarter-finals.

As the second seeded team, the Nationals will await the second lowest seeded team to advance.

At the moment, sixth seeded Sarnia leads third seeded LaSalle 3 games to 2. In the other series fourth seeded Chatham has a 3 games to 1 lead on fifth seeded St. Thomas. The Maroons and the Stars play this evening at 7pm (Thursday, March 10).

As for the Rockets, Caradoc Sands Golf Course opened yesterday.

(photo credit – Iron Dome shoots down a rocket over Israel – Reuters)

David Honsberger has University degrees in Psychology and Child Studies. He is a former developmental therapist and child care worker at the Niagara Child Development Centre working with learning disabled, emotionally disturbed children. David was the former team statistician for the OHL St. Catharines Black Hawks and Niagara Falls Flyers under the legendary “Hap” Emms. He 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 volunteer with the Rockets, David has 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. He is the owner and operator of possibly the longest running independent video store in North America, Entertainment Tonight.

David Honsberger

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