In a bizarre twist of fate, the Leamington Flyers (21-12-1-6) and the Strathroy Rockets (13-20-2-4) had very special events planned for a home-and-home series.  The events went off beautifully in both rinks however it was the visiting team in both games that skated off the ice with the victory.

In a possible playoff preview, the Rockets and the Flyers treated their supporters to a pair of entertaining games.  The Rockets also began displaying a post-season style work ethic that could lead to great success on the ice.

On Thursday, January 19, playing in front of the largest crowd to ever witness a Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League game, the Rockets, backed by the stellar goaltending of Zack Weir, blanked the hometown Flyers 2-0.

It was Dominos Pizza Night in Leamington.  The president of Dominos of Canada is a Leamington native and for the third time this season, every fan attending the game received a free slice of pizza.  On this particular night, 2,493 slices of pizza would have been necessary.

It was the fifth meeting of the season between the two clubs.  They would conclude the season series three nights later at the WMMC.  Despite the fact that the Flyers had won the first four meetings this season, the Rockets had played the fourth place Flyers very tough.  They had third period leads but were unable to hold on to them.  The young Rocket squad is now learning how to play a complete game.  They would be hard pressed by the Flyers on this night however Weir’s netminding and a terrific detail to team defense ensured the victory.

The Flyers came out gunning in the first period trying to ignite the over capacity crowd.  They outshot the Rockets by a 21-3 margin but both teams headed to the first intermission in a scoreless draw.

The Rockets had the first huge opportunity in the second period to get on the scoreboard with a 2-man advantage for 65 seconds but were unable to convert.  Later Rocket rookie Cody Schneider rattled a puck off the goal post to put a shockwave through the Highbury Canco Arena.

With Flyer Griffin Robinson off for a needless roughing after the whistle call, the Rockets struck quickly off the faceoff.  Rocket centre Steve Griggs pulled the draw to left winger Max Ewart and the puck was quickly back to the point to defenseman Chris Wood (2).  Wood walked to the centre of the ice and into the high slot where his deadly accurate wrist shot beat Flyer netminder Noah Hedrick.  The game winner came at 12:46.

With two minutes remaining in the period, defenseman Braeden Bowers and winger Michael Wood outworked the Flyer defense for the puck behind the Leamington net.  Wood passed the puck to the side of the net where Schneider’s (17) shot from a tight angle beat Hedrick to put the Rockets up 2-0.

Schneider’s goal tied Griggs for the team lead in goals with 17.

Second period shots favoured Leamington 21-13 for a two-period advantage of 42-16.

The two teams skated through a scoreless third period with the Flyers outshooting the Rockets 12-6 for a 54-22 advantage over the sixty minutes.

The Rockets clicked on 1 of 4 powerplay chances while the Flyers went 0 for 5.

Weir was the story of the night for the Rockets ruining the Flyers’ pizza party.  He stayed square to the puck and displayed excellent rebound control limiting the Flyers’ chances.  He was excellent at slowing down the pace of the game by forcing many faceoffs.  Many of the Flyer shots came from the outside as the Rockets, through their strong positional play, made Leamington play a peripheral game on the big Olympic-sized ice surface.

The win was a vital one for the Rockets.  Not only was it a great confidence booster it also moved them three points ahead of the seventh place St. Thomas Stars.  The Stars had moved to within a point of the sixth place Rockets with a 5-2 upset win over the second place London Nationals the previous night at the Western Fair in London.

On Saturday, January 21 at the WMMC in Strathroy, the Rockets were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their 1997 Western Ontario Junior B Hockey League Championship.  It was the first league title for the Rockets in 28 years.  Many of the Rocket players and staff were on hand along with the Strath Auto Centre Cup (now known as The Bill Weir Championship Trophy.)  The 1997 Rockets won a thrilling seven-game series against the Leamington Flyers taking game seven by a 5-4 score on a third period goal by Chris Hare.

In contrast to the mild affair Thursday in Leamington, the 362 fans were treated to a hard-hitting feisty match that had the fans on the edge of their seats for the entire contest.  The Flyers edged the Rockets 2-1.

Flyer Scott Florence (5) opened the scoring at 6:07 on an odd play.  Rocket T.J. Harris was to be called for a penalty at the Rocket blueline.  With the referee’s arm in the air for a delayed penalty, the Rockets, and most fans in the rink, thought that they heard a whistle blow the play dead.  Florence didn’t and he skated in unmolested on Rocket netminder Carson Poulin.  The Rockets strongly protested the goal, but the call on the ice was allowed to stand as the officials said that the whistle must have come from the stands as no official on the ice blew their whistle.

Midway in the opening period Rocket Brady Hogg was sent off for a boarding call on Flyer Nicolas Mainella.  The Leamington rearguard did require some assistance from the Flyer training staff but did return later to the game.

With Flyers Liam Hogan and Florence drawing penalties 7 seconds apart late in the opening period the Rockets found themselves on a two-man advantage for 1:53.  The Flyers nearly killed off the disadvantage.  They defended valiantly.  Josh Pope-Ferguson stole a goal off of Rocket winger Max Ewart’s stick at the side of the Flyer goal.  With just 3 seconds remaining in the five-on-three the Rockets developed the play they were looking for.  They worked the puck to an open Greg Marks (4) at the right post for a one-timer.  Marks who possesses one of the hardest shots in the league, wired the puck past a helpless Noah Hedrick in the Flyer goal.  The goal came at 18:46.  The Flyers outshot the Rockets 12-6 in the first period.

The two teams skated through a scoreless second period.  The closest anyone came to scoring occurred when Rocket Cody Schneider rattled a puck off of the post behind Hedrick with four minutes remaining in the period.

Flyer captain Mitchell Crevatin pasted Rocket Mathew Stevens with a solid check that sent the Rocket winger to the dressing room for repairs with trainer Mike Brooks.  Stevens left the ice holding his shoulder.  He did return to action in the third period.  The Rockets outshot the Flyers 11-8 in the very defensive middle frame.

The third period was anything but defensive.  Leamington held a narrow 16-15 advantage in shots in this wide-open period as both clubs battled for the tie-breaking goal.

The Flyers tallied the game winner with Rocket defenseman Braeden Bowers off serving a cross checking penalty.  Florence (6) notched his second goal of the game when he gobbled up a rare huge rebound in front of the gaping Rocket cage at 11:37.

The Rockets could not find the equalizer.  With Poulin on the bench for an extra attacker, Hedrick was forced to make stops on Lucas Latina and Michael Wood to preserve the win.

Leamington went 1 for 5 with the man advantage.  Strathroy was 1 for 7.  Final shots favoured Leamington 36-32.  Defensemen Dalton Good and Marks led the Rockets with five shots each.  The Flyers held a narrow 40-35 advantage (53.3%) in the faceoff circle.

The corporate sponsor for Saturday’s game was All Round Truck and Auto Care/Tirecraft.  They provided game tickets to the Strathroy & District Minor Hockey Association PeeWee LL White team to attend the game.

The Rockets (13-20-2-4) will hold on to their sixth place position.  They trail the fifth place Sarnia Legionnaires (19-17-0-3) by 9 points and lead the seventh place St. Marys Lincolns (15-22-0-1) by just a single point and the eighth place St. Thomas Stars (13-22-1-2) by 3 points.  The Lincolns moved to within a point of the Rockets by virtue of a 6-3 win over the last place Lambton Shores Predators (7-29-0-3) on Sunday night.

The Rockets will have a busy week ahead of them as they travel to Sarnia to play the fifth place Legionnaires on Thursday before hosting St. Marys and  Lambton Shores on Saturday, January 28 and Sunday, January 29 at the WMMC.  Both Rocket home games begin at 7:30 pm.

(photo credit – Colleen Wiendels Photography – Scott Florence #18 scores the tie-breaking game winner.  It was Florence’s second goal of the game in Leamington’s 2-1 victory over Strathroy)

David Honsberger

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