ROCKETS IN PLAYOFF MODE

ROCKETS IN PLAYOFF MODE

With the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League playoffs just around the corner the Strathroy Rockets are making a statement.  If the road to the Bill Weir Championship Trophy passes through Strathroy, their opponent can expect a bumpy ride.  Despite dropping both games in action last week, a narrow 3-2 decision to the first place LaSalle Vipers on the road and a 6-3 third period come-from-behind win for the visiting second place Chatham Maroons at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre, the Rockets played some of their best hockey of the season.  Their work ethic, determination and enthusiasm could not be matched by either the Vipers or the Maroons.  The Rockets are certainly displaying the type of robust and consistent hockey needed to please Rocket head coach Jason Glover and general manager Mike Bondy.  The road to a first round playoff upset may very well be found in Strathroy.

Another great goaltending performance from netminder Zack Weir, an unrelenting effort from his Strathroy Rocket teammates and perfect penalty killing nearly derailed the top seeded LaSalle Vipers (34-8-0-3) in their quest to finish on top of the Western Conference standings of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League.

The Vipers edged the hard-working Rockets 3-2 in front of 632 fans at the Vollmer Recreation Centre in LaSalle on Wednesday, February 1.  If not for a pair of Rocket shots off the crossbar they may have upset the Vipers on home ice.  LaSalle has an excellent 20-2-0-1 record at home this season.

The win kept the Vipers 8 points ahead of the second place London Nationals (30-12-1-0) in the race for the top seed and home ice advantage throughout the upcoming Western Conference playoffs.  The Nationals kept pace with the Vipers with a narrow 2-1 victory over the Sarnia Legionnaires (20-19-0-4).  The Rockets remained in seventh place, one point below the St. Marys Lincolns.  The Vipers lead the season series 5 games to 0 with one game yet to be played; that will be the Rockets next home game on Saturday, February 11 at the WMMC.  The Rockets have earned a point this year from the front-running Vipers from a 4-3 overtime loss.

The Vipers peppered Weir, outshooting the Rockets 51-22.  Many of the shots came on the Vipers’ eight powerplay opportunities.  The Rockets held fast on the penalty kill blocking shots and cutting off passing lanes but Weir was the busiest player on the ice and put his hockey club in a position where they could win.

The Vipers went 0 for 8 with the man advantage.  The Rockets were 0 for 5 including two 5-on-3 chances where they failed to capitalize.  The Vipers also enjoyed a 2-man advantage.

Most of the scoring came early in the game with four goals in the opening 10 minutes.  The two clubs were tied 2-2 after one period.  The Vipers led 3-2 after two periods.  Viper Cale Allen broke the tie with his second goal of the game at 3:22 of the second period.  It would stand up to be the game winner.  The Rockets battled valiantly for the next 36 minutes looking for the equalizer while Weir and the Rockets would not allow the Vipers to tally the insurance goal that they so desperately were looking for.

Rocket head coach Jason Glover commented that the Rockets’ mindset is “To go on a consistent run and to get on a roll to be prepared for the playoffs.  We are looking for a playoff mentality within the last eight games.”

The Rockets certainly sent the message to the Vipers that they are prepared to face any opponent come playoff time.

Chris Playfair (3) got the Vipers off to a good start when his shot from the top of the faceoff circle found the back of the net past Weir at 2:41.  Kaelan O’Flynn and Viper goaltender Eli Billing also assisted on the play.

Rocket Cody Schneider (20) was awarded a penalty shot when he was fouled after he got in behind the Viper defense at 3:39.  Schneider made no mistake skating down the gut and snapping a quick shot past Billing on the goaltender’s stick side.  It was the Rocket sniper’s 20th goal of the season, tying him with team leader Steve Griggs.  Griggs has a 3-point lead over linemate Max Ewart in the team scoring race.  Schneider’s penalty shot goal was a shorthanded marker coming with Rocket Lucas Latina in the penalty box for charging.

Cale Allen (10) notched his first of the night when he redirected a wrist shot from O’Flynn at 5:17 to put the Vipers back on top at 2-1.

Rocket underage forward Ty Glover (5) evened the score at 2-2 on an extended delayed penalty call when he deflected a Brady Hogg point shot past Billing at 9:22.  Glover had an outstanding game for the Rockets buzzing around the Flyer goal.

The Rockets nearly took the lead in the final seconds of the first period when Schneider rattled the puck off of the crossbar.  First period shots favoured LaSalle 20-9.

The game winner was a shorthanded effort by Allen (11).  He elected to shoot on a 2-on-1 chance rifling the puck to the top corner past Weir’s trapper at 3:22 of the second period.  Both teams came close to scoring.  First Viper Liam MacDougall hit the goal post then the Rockets put a scare into the Vipers when Latina hit the crossbar as the period ended.  Second period shots were 15-8 for the Vipers.

In the third period the Vipers demonstrated their veteran presence by beating the Rockets to loose pucks and winning battles along the boards.  Their fast transition game kept Weir alert throughout the contest and limited the Rocket scoring chances.  LaSalle outshot Strathroy 16-5 in the scoreless final frame.

Billing earned the win improving his record to 24-9 while Weir, despite the great effort, dropped to 5-10.  The Rockets were short a pair of regulars.  Noah Crowley filled in nicely from the North Middlesex Stars.

Following Friday night’s 4-2 St. Marys (18-23-0-1) victory over Sarnia and the St. Thomas Stars (14-24-1-12) dumping of the Leamington Flyers (24-13-1-6) 6-1 the playoff seeding race got tighter.  The Lincolns opened up a 3 point lead over the Rockets, while the eighth place Stars moved to within 3 points of Strathroy.

Saturday, February 4 at the WMMC the Rockets faced the Chatham Maroons.  Strong third periods are becoming the standard for the Maroons.  Two nights earlier in St. Thomas the Maroons erased a third period St. Thomas lead with a 7-goal outburst in the final period to win 9-4.  The Rockets got a taste of that when a 5-goal Chatham third period saw the Maroons steal a 6-3 win over the Rockets.  The Maroons trailed the Rockets 2-1 heading into the final period.

The penalty filled contest saw a steady stream of players heading to the penalty box.  Special teams had a strong effect on the outcome of the game.  The Rockets clicked once on 11 powerplay opportunities while the Maroons converted 1 of 7 chances.  A third period shorthanded goal by Chatham’s Bryce Yetman tied the game at 3-3 and a powerplay marker by Maroon Teddy McGeen was the game winner.  Despite scoring just once on 11 powerplay chances the Rockets displayed a very dangerous looking powerplay.  They fired 24 powerplay shots on goal on Maroon netminder Brendan Johnston.  The Maroons had 14 powerplay shots on goal on their 7 chances.  Both Johnston and Rocket goaltender Carson Poulin had outstanding evenings making many spectacular saves.  Final shots favoured the Rockets 48-36.  The win was an important one for the Maroons (30-10-0-1) as it moved them into a second place tie with the London Nationals.  Both clubs trail the LaSalle Vipers by 10 points.  Chatham enjoys 2 games in hand on the Nationals and 4 games in hand on the Vipers.

Defenseman Chris Wood (3) opened the scoring for the Rockets at 6:34 with a powerplay goal with Bobby Harrison off with a double minor for high sticking Rocket Spencer Allen.  Wood drilled a one-timer from a soft pass from Greg Marks from the top of the faceoff circle.  It would be the only goal of a hectic first period which saw nine minor penalties called.  Rocket captain Lucas Latina nailed a drive off the goal post, which would have been heard in downtown Strathroy, late in the period.  Thirteen of the Rockets’ 20 shots in the period came via the powerplay.  The Rockets also owned the faceoff circle winning 20 of 27 draws in the opening period.  Chatham directed 12 shots at Poulin.  The Maroons were guilty of missing several glorious scoring opportunities early in the game with some erratic shooting.

The second period began with Rocket Cody Schneider rattling Maroon Brendan D’Agostino with a solid hit that dazed D’Agostino and sent Schneider to the penalty box.  D’Agostino, a recent addition to the Maroons from the Thorold Blackhawks, leads the Western Conference in scoring.

On the ensuing powerplay the Maroons thought they had tied the game with a beautiful goal but it was waved off as the net was off of its moorings.

Maroon goaltender Johnston lifted the 411 fans out of their seats with a dynamite glove save on Rocket winger Max Ewart from a nice pass from Steve Griggs on a 2-on-1 opportunity.

Midway in the period Rocket Ty Glover stepped out of the penalty box after serving a penalty and was sent on a clear cut breakaway.  Johnston made a solid save and immediately Braden Henderson sprung Austin Thompson with a breakaway on Poulin.  Thompson (25) scored with a quick shot to tie the game at 1-1 at 9:42.

Poulin was called upon to come up big twice denying Blair Derynck on a shorthanded breakaway and moments later when Alec Mackenzie slipped in behind the Rocket defense.

The Rockets regained the lead after a miscue in the Maroon defensive zone.  Call-up Navrin Mutter (1) tallied his first career Rocket goal burying a loose puck after some diligent work from linemates Tristan Sedlak and Mark Bastow.  Fifteen-year-old Mutter is a Lucan native who plays AAA Minor Midget for the Elgin Middlesex Chiefs.  The 6’ 2”, 169lb forward looked very comfortable in a Rocket sweater.  Later in the period Mutter filled in Maroon defenseman Jake O’Donnell with a heavy body check.  The Maroons nipped the Rockets 15-14 in second period shots due to an 8-4 advantage in powerplay shots.

Between periods longtime Rocket supporter Scottie Fletcher was the big winner with the 22 Auto Body Tire Roll.

The wild and hectic third period began with a bang when speedy Rocket winger Ewart levelled Maroon Thompson with a solid check.

With Maroons Noah Bushnell (slashing) and Bryce Yetman (cross checking) off serving penalties the Rockets had a 2-man advantage for 1:04.  Their best chances came when Latina slipped in behind cover but fired the puck wide of the net and Johnston making a nearly impossible glove save on Bastlow.

Last year’s Western Conference scoring leader Ethan Sarfati (20) tied the game at 2-2 at 6:49.  The goal came right after Glover shot wide of an open Maroon cage and Sarfati darted up the ice on an odd man rush.  Sarfati made no mistake with a deadly wrist shot from the high slot.

Tragedy struck again for the Rockets with Maroon Cory Bussing off for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty incurred after the Sarfati goal.

Latina nearly regained the lead for the Rockets but for the second time in the game his shot beat Johnston, but not the goal post.  Rocket defenseman Marks turned the puck over at the blueline and Yetman (19) scored a shorthanded breakaway marker to give the Maroons the lead for the first time in the contest at 8:03.  They would never relinquish the lead.

It was the Maroons time to find the iron now.  With Latina off for an elbowing penalty, Yetman nearly had his second goal of the game.

With just 5 seconds remaining in a T.J. Harris head-checking penalty, McGeen (9) fired the puck past Poulin after an nice pass from Mackenzie from behind the Rocket goal at 13:52 to give the Maroons a two-goal lead at 4-2.

Glover (6) got that goal back for the Rockets 11 seconds later slipping the puck between Johnston’s pads after the Maroon netminder stopped a hard shot from Jeff Williams.  The goal cut the Maroon lead to 4-3, but the comeback bid was quickly halted when Thompson (26) scored his second goal of the game 73 seconds later with a wrist shot from the high slot after a rare faceoff win in the Rocket defensive zone to put the Maroons up 5-3 at 15:20. The goal came moments after Ewart delivered another big hit, this one on Mackenzie.

The icing on the cake was applied at 19:04 with a deft tic-tac-toe play with Thompson and Kevin Gursoy setting up D’Agostino (20).  The play finished with a right wing to left wing pass behind Rocket cover for an easy tip-in past a helpless Poulin.  Third period shots were 14-9 for the Rockets.

In spite of the loss the Rockets (14-24-2-4) controlled the play for most of the game.  They outshot the Maroons 48-36 and destroyed them in the faceoff circle winning 56 draws and losing just 24 (70%).  Latina was nearly perfect in the faceoff circle losing just 1 of 19 draws (94.7%) while Griggs went 21-8 (72.4%).  Johnston earned the win improving his record to 15-7 while Poulin dropped to 2-2.  Allen led all Rockets with 8 shots on goal.  Michael Wood had 5 shots, all in the first period and all on the powerplay.  Griggs, Latina, Glover and Chris Wood all had 4 shots.

The game completed the season series between the two clubs with the Maroons winning 5 of the 6 games.  The Rockets’ lone victory was a 4-3 double overtime victory.  The two clubs could be first round playoff opponents.

The Rockets have six games remaining in the regular season.  On Friday, February 10 the Rockets will make their final trip of the season to the Pyramid Recreation Complex in St. Marys to play the Lincolns.  The following night LaSalle will make their final visit of the year to the WMMC.  The Rockets will then complete a home and home series with the London Nationals.  The Nats will travel to Strathroy on Saturday, February 18 and the Rockets will head to the Western Fair Community Sports Centre on Wednesday, February 22.  Two nights later the Rockets will be at the Timkin Community Centre in St. Thomas to play the Stars on Friday, February 24 before completing the season at home on Saturday, February 25 against long time rivals, the Sarnia Legionnaires.

(photo – Colleen Wiendels Photography)

David Honsberger

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