ROCKETS BATTLE HARD
The Strathroy Rockets (15-24-1-2) earned three of a possible four points with a dominating 6-2 win over the St. Marys Lincolns (19-25-0-1) on Friday, February 10 and picked up a hard-earned point in a 4-3 setback in overtime to the first place LaSalle Vipers (35-9-0-3) the following night at the WMMC.
The Rockets kept pace with the St. Thomas Stars (16-25-1-2) on Friday, who were 4-3 double overtime winners over the Sarnia Legionnaires (20-20-0-5), with a solid 6-2 win in St. Marys in front of 417 fans.
Rocket assistant coach Jason Furlong remarked prior to the game, “We are trying to gear towards the playoffs with a ‘playoff mentality’”. After seeing some leads slip away from the Rockets recently Furlong also commented that, “The Rockets need to find a way to close out games. As long as we play with intensity, follow our game plan and play a full sixty minutes, we will be successful.” Furlong’s words were prophetic. The Rockets were tested in both weekend games to hold on to leads with mixed results.
The Rockets nearly let the match against the Lincolns slip through their fingers, but a quick start and an explosive third period paved the way for their success. The Rockets led 2-0 after one period on goals by Mark Bastlow (11) and team scoring leader Steve Griggs (21). Bastlow’s goal came on the powerplay at 9:42. The Griggs marker came at 12:59. Both goals were scored on rebounds after Lincoln starter Tristan Lewis made the first stop on Spencer Allen and Michael Woods. First period shots were even at 12-12. Rocket netminder Zack Weir made a pair of outstanding saves in the first period.
The Lincolns tied the game in the second period with a pair of goals from Tanner Hertel (8, 9) at 1:21 and 13:21. The first goal came on a pass from the corner after a superb end to end rush by Alessio Luciani; the second after some great puck movement by the Lincolns.
St. Marys had a third goal waved off as the net was off of its moorings on a wraparound attempt. Earlier the Rockets had a great chance to score with a 2-on-0 break. T.J. Harris rang the puck off the crossbar.
Max Ewart (16) put the Rockets back on top at 3-2 at 17:28 when his laser shot from the faceoff dot picked the top corner past Lewis. Ewart had another outstanding game for the Rockets. He led the team in hits and was a constant threat throughout the game.
Second period shots were 14-11 for the Lincolns as Weir continued his stellar play.
The Rockets put the game out of reach for the Lincolns in the opening minute of the third period scoring two goals in a 24-second span by Allen (9) and Cody Schneider (21).
Allen scored at the 14-seccond mark when he pounced on a loose puck in front of Lewis quickly off a draw. Schneider beat Lewis with a quick shot off a clean faceoff win by Griggs.
Harris (10) provided the icing on the cake at 3:31 on a powerplay, sending many Lincoln supporters heading towards the exits, when his wrist shot squeaked under a screened Lewis’ pads. The Rockets sixth goal brought the end to Lewis’ night in net for the Lincolns. Graham Dynes came on in relief.
The third period featured a lengthy spirited bout between the Lincolns’ Bill Moskal and Rocket defenseman Braeden Bowers with Bowers earning the decision on the takedown.
The third period shots were even at 8-8. St. Marys outshot Strathroy 34-31. The Rockets were 2 for 5 on the powerplay, while the disciplined Rockets never gave the Lincolns a powerplay opportunity.
It was the final meeting of the season between the two teams. The Rockets took the season series 4 games to 2. The Rockets have not lost a season series to the Lincolns in the past 14 years. The Rockets and the Lincolns have not met in the post season since the Rockets were known as the Blades in the 1993-94 season 24 years ago. The Lincolns swept the Blades 4 games to 0. The next season the Blades reverted to their original Rocket moniker.
Prior to Saturday’s game at the WMMC against the front-running LaSalle Vipers, the Rockets announced the signing of 19-year-old forward Jake Muchnik. Muchnik is presently attending the University of Western Ontario. He previously played at Upper Canada College where he scored 10 goals and added 6 assists in 28 games. He played left wing on a line with Bastlow and Latina. He was forced from the game in the third period with an undisclosed injury and treated by Rocket trainer Mike Brooks.
A scintillating performance from Rocket goaltender Weir and a gutsy effort from his Rocket teammates nearly upset the top ranked Vipers. LaSalle overcame 2-1 and 3-2 deficits to emerge with a controversial 4-3 overtime victory. Weir was sensational in the game making many phenomenal saves. He displayed the type of goaltending that Rocket fans can look forward to as the playoffs rapidly approach. The Rockets were outshot 66-26. Special teams were a key to the Viper win. They clicked on 3 of 6 chances, including the overtime winner while firing 17 shots at Weir. The Rockets were unsuccessful in 2 powerplay chances with 6 powerplay shots on goal. The Vipers barely edged the Rockets 45-43 in the faceoff circle. Rocket captain Latina was once again the best centre on the ice winning 19 draws while losing just 8 (70.4%). Allen was called upon for double duty playing defense, and then after the third period injury to Muchnik was moved up to the forward line. He led all Rockets with 6 shots on goal. Griggs had five. The Vipers swept the 6-game season series from the Rockets however two of the Rocket losses came in overtime. LaSalle has won the season series from Strathroy for the last 6 years.
Prior to the game defenceman Greg Marks was honoured as the Poag Jewelers’ Player of the Month for January. New Lifestyles Health and Fitness were the corporate sponsors for the game.
The Vipers led 1-0 after one period. The two clubs exploded for a 5-goal second period with the Rockets holding leads twice. The two clubs were even at 3-3 heading into the scoreless third period.
Daniel Beaudoin (22) opened the scoring at 7:09 quickly on the powerplay burying a rebound.
To counteract LaSalle’s heavy forecheck and quick transition game the Rockets came out with a more diligent work ethic in the second period. They were rewarded at 6:06 when Matthew Stevens (6) tapped in a rebound from a Schneider drive. The Rockets took the lead at 9:06 with a deadly backhand from Harris (11) which easily beat Viper goaltender Eli Billing after some nice work from Ewart.
The Vipers tied the game at 2-2 at 9:46 on the powerplay when Liam MacDougall (29) was the recipient of a slick passing play down low from Eric Kirby.
The Rockets responded at 11:43 when Stevens (7) slid the puck into an open side of the net to retake the lead at 3-2 with his second goal of the game.
By the midway point of the period the Vipers lost two of their top scorers. Manny Silverio was ushered from the game for shooting the puck over the glass and Nathan Savage was sent to the showers with his second inciting misconduct.
LaSalle tied the game at 3-3 at 17:20 on a 2-on-2 rush. Viper Cale Allen beat the Rocket defense to the outside and perfectly timed a strike to an onrushing Chris Playfair (7).
The two teams played through a scoreless third period. The Vipers pressed the Rockets, but they would not break. Weir made an unbelievable glove save on another Viper powerplay early in the period. By the midway point of the period the frustrated Vipers had outshot Weir and the Rockets 16-1.
The Rockets had a pair of excellent chances for the win late in the period. With 75 seconds remaining Griggs broke in behind the Viper defense forcing Billing to make his best save of the night, then with 32 seconds left in regulation time Latina rattled a shot off the goal post.
The overtime winner came when Brett Banwell (3) fired a one-timer from the point with Rocket captain Latina in the penalty box with a slashing call. The Rockets objected to the penalty. With time fading in regulation a Viper defender fell to the ice and put his glove over the puck. Latina tried to free the puck and was assessed a penalty with 2 seconds remaining in the period.
The Rockets finished the week alone in seventh place, two points below St. Marys and two points above St. Thomas. The Stars enjoy 2 games in hand on the Rockets while the Lincolns have one game in hand.
The Rockets will be idle next week until they host the London Nationals (31-12-1-0) at the WMMC on Saturday, February 18.
(photo credit – Collen Wiendels Photography)