A three-goal performance from Brett Primeau paced the first place LaSalle Vipers to a 5-2 win over the visiting eighth place Strathroy Rockets at the Vollmer Recreation Complex in LaSalle on Wednesday, March 1.  The Vipers needed an empty net goal by Eric Kirby to secure the win after the Rockets staged a second period comeback.  The Vipers lead the best-of-seven GOJHL Western Conference quarterfinal 1-0.  In the only other matchup on Wednesday night the London Nationals needed a strong third period to dispose of the St. Marys Lincolns by a 6-3 score in the first game of their series.  The game was tied 3-3 heading into the final period.  The Nationals, who boast the top powerplay in the GOJHL, tallied four powerplay markers.

The Vipers opened up a 2-0 first period lead on goals by Manny Silverio, who tipped a Dede Cato point shot at 6:30, and Primeau’s first of the night at 9:11 on a quick shot from the faceoff dot after a nice feed from Nathan Savage.  The Vipers were outshooting the Rockets 11-3 at the time and finished the period with a 15-6 advantage.  The Vipers did dodge a couple of bullets in the opening frame when Mark Bastlow hit the goal post and Max Ewart rattled another shot off the crossbar behind LaSalle keeper Eli Billing.  Both close calls came while the Rockets, who led the Western Conference in shorthanded goals, were killing a penalty.

It looked like the Vipers were well on their way for the victory when Primeau picked the top corner on Rocket goaltender Zack Weir at 3:11 of the second period to put the home team up 3-0 in front of 637 happy fans.

It was then that the Rockets were able to shake off some early playoff jitters.  Twelve Strathroy players were seeing playoff action for the first time in a Rocket sweater.  A pair of quick goals by Spencer Allen on a great one-timer from the point at 1:41 on the powerplay and a tremendous individual effort by Bastlow at 14:04 cut the Viper lead to 3-2 heading into the second intermission.  The Bastlow goal was easily the highlight of the night.  The Toronto native stole the puck at the Rocket blueline on a great back check. Bastlow, who also assisted on the Allen marker, sped down the left wing outracing three Vipers before cutting in behind the LaSalle defense and beating Billing with a deft deke. Second period shots favoured LaSalle 11-10 in a period that saw the momentum shift into a Rocket advantage.

Primeau reversed the Rocket momentum early in the third period when he completed his hat trick just 39 seconds into the period firing another dart into the top corner past Weir to restore a 2-goal Viper lead.  Kirby’s empty-netter with 57 seconds remaining in regulation time ended the Rockets’ comeback hopes.  Scoring chances were low in the third period with LaSalle playing a defensive game by clogging the neutral zone.  Third period shots were 8-7 for LaSalle and 34-23 over sixty-minutes.

The faceoff circle was practically a dead heat with LaSalle having a slight 36-35 advantage.  Lucas Latina (7-3, 70%) and Tristan Sedlak (5-1, 83.3%) led all Rockets.  Rocket defenseman Dalton Good had a stellar game on the Rocket blueline.  The Rockets went 1 for 6 on the powerplay while the Vipers were 0 for 4.

Prior to game one Rocket head coach Jason Glover commented on preparation and the outlook for the series saying, “We had a good practice last night and the guys are excited and it’s a good opportunity for our guys to step up here.  Obviously we’re coming up here against a first place team.  Stats don’t lie.  They’ve been strong on the powerplay, they’ve got a good PK (penalty kill) and they have good goaltending.  For it to go our way we have to have strong goaltending as well and take advantage of our chances.”

When asked for the key on getting pucks past Viper goaltender Billing, Glover replied, “Definitely traffic.  If he can see it, he’s going to stop it.  We’ve got to get in front of him and find space without getting boxed out and send pucks to the net from all angles and look for some rebounds.”

Looking at keys to the series Glover added, “I think it’s important that if we do get a chance on the powerplay, we have to capitalize.  At an 11% (powerplay percentage for the regular season) and 0 and 6 against them (in the regular season series) and with tight games on 4 out of the 6, if we can convert on our powerplay, I think one or two goals are going to make a big difference in this series.”  For the powerplay to be successful Glover insisted that, “They force us all over, especially at home.  It’s very important that we get pucks to the net and move the puck quickly and not skate into traffic and not take on guys one-on-one. “

Glover’s thoughts on the powerplay were very prophetic.  In game one with the Rockets trailing 4-2 in the third period, LaSalle’s Brett Banwell took a pair of minor penalties for tripping and unsportsmanlike conduct at 9:36 putting the Rockets on a four-minute powerplay.  The Rockets were unable to convert on either end of the powerplay and were hindered when Steve Griggs was called for an interference penalty 36 seconds into the first penalty.

Despite losing all six games to LaSalle in the regular season Glover commented on how well the Rockets battled against the Vipers saying, “It definitely gives us a sense of belief.  If these guys can believe, half the problem with young players is between the ears, so that means a lot for sure.”

When talking about the atmosphere at the WMMC Glover was adamant that it was extremely important.  “When the fans are there and they are right on top of you and we can be a little more aggressive and it is easier to recover at home.  A massive difference here between the two teams is ice surface so we are probably going to see two different styles of games.”

When asked how to play against LaSalle’s strong line-up Glover commented, “They have a lot of skilled players and a great powerplay but for us to be successful we need to be extremely physical because they have such a deep team.”  Physicality was not an issue in game one as both teams played a rather laid back game defensively utilizing their speed with quick offensive bursts.  The intensity and body checking will likely be a key factor in game two of the series back in Strathroy.

LaSalle Viper head coach Bill Bowler mentioned that despite their excellent regular season the Vipers face a dilemma in playing the Rockets in the opening round.  “Strathroy plays in a real small building and they play extremely well at home.  The key for us is to worry about our home games but if there’s a way to steal a game in their arena we can take control of the series.  This next series will be over in 11 days.  All Strathroy has to do is be the best team for 11 days.”

The series resumes on Saturday, March 4 in Strathroy at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre at 7:30pm.  The two clubs will return to LaSalle the following night, Sunday, March 5, for game three beginning at 8pm.

David Honsberger

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