The Rolling Stones were singing “Paint it Black” and the Strathroy Rockets were wearing their alternate black sweaters however, it took more than The Stones and the Rockets to subdue the visiting third place London Nationals (32-13-1-0) at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre in Strathroy on Saturday, February 18.

Two-goal performances from London’s Brenden Trottier and Max Vinogradov paced the Nationals to a spirited 7-4 victory giving the London squad some hope of catching the second place Chatham Maroons before the regular season wraps up eight days later.  The Nats trail the Maroons by 4 points.  Both clubs have 4 games remaining.

Entering action Saturday night the Rockets were tied with the St. Thomas Stars for seventh place by virtue of the Stars’ 5-1 win over the Maroons (34-11-0-1) the previous night.  Both clubs trailed the surging sixth place St. Marys Lincolns by four points.

The Rockets’ 7-4 loss to the Nationals combined with St. Thomas’ 7-2 spanking of the last place Lambton Shores Predators (7-35-0-5) Saturday night moved the Stars into sole possession of seventh place slipping the Rockets into the eighth and final playoff seed.  The Rockets have qualified for post season play.

To help celebrate Hockey Day in Canada every minor hockey player wearing their team’s sweater was given free admission to the game.  Strathroy Dental Centre was the corporate sponsor for the game.

The Rockets have failed to defeat the Nationals this season, dropping four games and tying one other.

Special teams left their mark on the game.  Overall the Rockets did an admirable job limiting the high-flying Nationals to one powerplay goal on 9 chances.  London has the third best powerplay in the GOJHL.  The Rockets clicked twice on 10 chances but did allow a shorthanded marker to Vinogradov.  The shorthanded goal was the game winner.  The speedy, skilled 5’ 5” Vinogradov could easily be the most exciting player to watch in the entire league and is worth the price of admission to any contest.

The game was a rugged affair particularly in the first period.  The two teams combined for 78 penalty minutes and 2 player ejections.  Rocket Jeff Williams set the tone when he pasted a National into the end boards taking a penalty just 41 seconds into the contest.

The Rockets killed off the penalty and continued their physical assault on the Nationals.  Rocket captain Lucas Latina (11) gave Strathroy an early lead at 5:42 when he skated in from the blueline and wired a wrist shot from the slot past London goaltender Trenton McGrail.  Rocket goaltender Carson Poulin drew an assist on the play.  For both the Rockets and the Nationals it was their first look of the season at their opposing goaltender.  Latina’s goal came 2 seconds after a London penalty had expired.

Less than two minutes later the Nationals tied the game.  Former St. Thomas Star Carson Brookshaw (9) tipped a Quinn Lenihan drive from the point past Poulin at 7:30 with Rocket T.J. Harris off for an interference penalty.

Undaunted, the Rockets continued to lay the body on the Nats establishing a physical dominance over their opponent.  Cody Schneider (22) tallied his team leading 22nd goal of the season to put the Rockets back on top at 10:42.  Schneider was the recipient of a tremendous rush and pass from Spencer Allen.  The goal came on the powerplay with Michael Andlauer off for a high sticking penalty.

Just 46 seconds later the Nats tied the score for the second time in the period when a Justin VanWynsberghe (12) shot from an almost impossible angle found its way behind Poulin and into the Rocket net.

Love them or hate them, fights can sometimes have a dramatic effect on the momentum of a hockey game.  Only 10 seconds after the tying London goal, National Ian McKinnon and Rocket Matthew Stevens dropped their gloves.  McKinnon, a former OHL Peterborough Pete, had no problems dealing with Stevens.  The one-sided fight seemed to inspire the National bench, while it had a complete opposite effect on the Rocket side of the ice.  From that moment on the Nationals began to out-hit the Rockets.

Only 57 seconds later at 12:55, Trottier (24) tallied his first of two goals on the night to give London a 3-2 lead.  The Nationals would never relinquish that lead.  Trottier finished off a beautiful three-way passing play with linemates Ethan Nother and Brandon Glover.

The Nationals added an exclamation point at the end of the period when Brookshaw stood up Latina with a solid hit in front of the Rocket bench.  First period shots favoured the Rockets 11-7.

Both clubs had big chances to score early in the second period on the powerplay.  At 4:44 the Nationals had a goal disallowed when it was knocked into the net with a high stick.  At 8:30 Allen whistled a shot off the crossbar behind McGrail.

Trottier (25) added his second of the night at 9:39 on a complete defensive zone breakdown by the Rockets.

VanWynsberghe nearly scored his second of the night when his solo dash down the left wing resulted in a shot off of the post.

The Nationals increased their lead to 5-2 with their fourth consecutive goal when Vinogradov (21) scored on a shorthanded breakaway at 13:09.  The goal would be the eventual game winner.

The Rockets inched back a little closer at 17:53.  Williams’ “Hail Mary” shot from the sideboards somehow handcuffed McGrail to cut the lead to 5-3.

With just 48.9 seconds left in the period a Chris Wood shot felled McGrail to the ice.  The London goaltender was assisted to the dressing room for treatment and never returned to the game.  Cameron Zanussi came on in relief.  London outshot Strathroy 13-8 in the middle frame.

The Rockets put a big scare into the Nationals at 7:41 when a Harris (12) bullet beat Zanussi on a Rocket powerplay with Richard Whittaker serving a costly cross checking penalty and cut the National lead to a single goal.

The Nationals were guilty throughout the game of over-passing.  They gave up many glorious scoring opportunities looking for a perfect play.

Mark Bastlow brought the 447 fans to their feet when he was slipped in behind cover on a nice pass from Latina but was unable to score.

With the Rockets pressing for the tying goal, Glover (26) erased the Rocket hopes when he capitalized on a Rocket turnover at their own blueline to Kyle Dawson with 1:46 remaining in regulation time.  Glover had a 5-point night with a goal and 4 assists.

Just nine seconds later with Poulin attempting to go to the bench for an extra attacker Vinogradov (22) picked the corner on Poulin when he elected to shoot on a two-on-one opportunity.  London outshot Strathroy 15-7 in the third period and 35-26 over sixty minutes.

The Nats had 13 powerplay shots during the game while the Rockets had 9.  London won 46 of 89 faceoffs for a narrow 51.7% advantage.  Latina (58.3%) and Bastlow (64.2%) led all Rockets in faceoffs.

Steve Griggs, Schneider and Harris led the Rockets with 3 shots each.

Despite departing from the game with an injury, McGrail was the goaltender of record picking up the win.  The 6’ 4, 225lb netminder improved his record to 11-2.  Poulin was tabbed with the loss dropping his record to 2-3 as a Rocket.

Overall it was a valiant effort by the Rockets against a much stronger opponent.

The game marked the return at home for talented Rocket defenseman Brady MacDonald.  The underage defenseman had missed almost the last two months with an injury.

The Rockets (15-25-2-5) have just three games remaining in their Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League Western Conference schedule.  They will be at the Western Fair in London to play the Nationals on Wednesday, February 22nd before travelling to the Timken Community Centre in St. Thomas to play the Stars (18-25-1-2) on Friday, February 24th.  The following night they will complete their regular season at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre at home hosting long time rivals, the Sarnia Legionnaires (21-20-0-6).

The playoffs will begin the following against an opponent yet to be determined.

(photo –  “London National Max Vinogradov (61) skates in on a shorthanded breakaway on Strathroy Rocket netminder Carson Poulin (30).  Vinogradov would score on the play as the Nationals tripped up the Rockets 7-4 at the WMMC on Saturday, February 18.” – Colleen Wiendels Photography)

David Honsberger

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