The LaSalle Vipers have pushed the Strathroy Rockets to the verge of elimination with a pair of weekend victories.  LaSalle earned a narrow 5-3 win at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre on Saturday, March 4 and slipped past the Rockets by a slim 4-3 margin the following night at the Vollmer Recreation Centre in LaSalle.  The Vipers lead the Rockets 3 games to 0 in the best-of-seven GOJHL Western Conference quarterfinals.  The Vipers can move on to the next round with a win on Strathroy ice on Tuesday, March 7.  Game time is 7:30pm.  If the Rockets can force a game five it will come the next night in LaSalle beginning at 7pm.  If a sixth game is necessary it will be played in Strathroy on Saturday, March 11 at 7:30pm.  A seventh and deciding game, if necessary, will be a 2:30pm matinee in LaSalle the following afternoon.

Following the same pattern as game one in LaSalle the top-ranked LaSalle Vipers needed an empty net goal to secure another win, Brett Primeau added a pair of goals, his 4th and 5th of the series as LaSalle took a two-game to nothing lead over the Rockets with a 5-3 win in front of 411 fans.  The Truck Shop was the corporate sponsor for the game.

A deadly Viper powerplay and a shutdown third period paced the Vipers to the win.  LaSalle scored four times with the man advantage in eight opportunities.  The Rockets failed to convert on their lone powerplay.  The Vipers outshot the Rockets 23-1 while enjoying the man advantage and 54-42 over three periods.  In even strength situations, the Rockets outshot the Vipers by a 41-31 margin.

Heading into the third period, enjoying a narrow 4-3 lead, the Vipers played a classic “kitty-bar-the-door” period limiting the Rocket scoring opportunities.  LaSalle would only send one fore checker into the Rocket defensive zone, and occasionally none at all, while they clogged up the neutral zone.  If the Vipers forced a faceoff in the Rocket zone and then lost the draw, the entire five skaters would quickly vacate the Rocket zone.  The Rockets managed just 7 shots on goal in the third period.

The Rockets took the early lead with a goal from defenseman Brady Hogg (1) at 2:14.  Hogg led the rush up ice down the right wing.   LaSalle goaltender Eli Billing stopped his shot leaving Rocket Ty Glover looking at a wide open cage.  Billing recovered in time to make a miraculous save on Glover but the rebound went to Hogg giving the Rockets their first lead of the series.

With Matthew Stevens off for cross checking, Jack Bowler (1) finished off a nice passing play with Jasper Forgrave and Brett Banwell to tie the game at 1-1.  The goal came with 3 seconds remaining in the Stevens’ penalty on the Vipers seventh shot on goal on the penalty.

The opening period was not as physical as expected.  The Vipers appeared overanxious and somewhat nervous fanning on several good scoring chances.  Historically, LaSalle has had great difficulty winning games at the West Middlesex Memorial Centre.  Prior to this season LaSalle had not won a regular season series in Strathroy in eight years.  The Vipers won all three games this year, all by 4-3 scores.  Two of the games required overtime.

With Rocket defenseman Dalton Good off for slashing just 28 seconds into the second period it appeared as if the Vipers had taken a 2-1 lead however the goal was waved off for being knocked into the net with a glove.  Undeterred Brendan Soto laid a soft shot on goal from the point and Nathan Savage (1) pounced on the rebound to give the Vipers their first lead of the game.

Soon thereafter Michael Wood (1) evened the score at 2-2 beating Billing with an accurate backhand as he finished off an odd-man rush with Glover and Good at 3:18.

At 6:25 the Vipers regained the lead.  A Tyler Russell body check behind the Rocket net separated the puck from a Rocket defender and Liam MacDougall found an unmarked Manny Silverio (2) in front of Rocket goaltender Zack Weir.   This time the Vipers would not relinquish their lead.

The Rockets came close to tying the game when Billing misplayed a hard drive that arched above the LaSalle keeper dropping to the ice behind him.  A wild scramble developed.  The puck never crossed the goal line and Spencer Allen was assessed a slashing penalty for trying to dislodge the puck from under Billing’s leg.  The LaSalle goaltender was shaken up on the play and required treatment from the LaSalle training staff but remained in the game.

The game’s turning point occurred with Allen in the penalty box.  Rocket Tristan Sedlak was sprung for a shorthanded breakaway.  Billing came up with the big pad save and the Vipers swung up ice on the attack.  Primeau (4) scored on the rush to put the Vipers up 4-2 at 15:47.  The goal would stand up to be the game winner.

The Rockets cut the lead to 4-3 at 18:13 with Rocket captain Lucas Latina off for a roughing penalty.  Cody Schneider (1) tallied a shorthanded goal on a slick play with Chris and Michael Wood.  The Rockets led all Western Conference teams in shorthanded goals last season.

The only scoring in the third period was the Primeau (5) empty net powerplay marker with Latina off for an unfortunate slashing penalty with 10 seconds remaining in regulation time.

At 9:55 of the final frame Stevens and Cale Allen decided to drop the gloves directly from a faceoff in the Rocket defensive zone with Allen earning the decision with a knock down.

The Rockets had a 51-44 (53.6%) advantage in the faceoff circle.  Mark Bastlow (19-9, 68.7%), Glover (9-5, 64.2%) and Latina (10-4, 71.4%) paced the Rockets.  Latina led all Rockets with 6 shots on goal.  Speedy Max Ewart led the Rockets in hits with three.

The following night in LaSalle the Rockets exploded out of the gate with a Steve Griggs (1) goal just 39 seconds into the contest.  The Vipers responded at 12:48 with a powerplay marker by Primeau (6) with Glover off for roughing.  The Rockets dictated the play in the chippy opening period outshooting the Vipers 19-13.  The teams split six minor penalties.

Spencer Allen put the Rockets back on top at 2-1 after a turnover at the Viper blueline.  Allen carried the puck in, cut across the ice taking a shot from the top of the faceoff circle that beat Viper netminder Billing.

Mirroring a similar event from the previous night, Max Ewart was stopped by Billing on another shorthanded breakaway attempt and the Vipers skated up ice with Daniel Beaudoin (1) redirecting a Soto point short past Weir to tie the game at 2-2.  The goal came three seconds after Good returned to the ice from a high sticking penalty.  Good drew three minor penalties in a second period that saw the momentum shift back into the Vipers’ favour.  Weir was outstanding in the period as the Rockets were outshot 22-6.

The Vipers took the lead for the first time in the game when Primeau (7) notched his seventh goal of the series deflecting another Soto one-timer from the point past Weir just 42 seconds into the third period.  The goal came with Good off serving an interference penalty.  Primeau has had an outstanding series tallying a hat trick in game one and scoring twice in both games two and three.

The LaSalle lead was very short-lived.  Griggs (2) scored his second goal of the game with one second remaining on a Rocket powerplay with Dede Cato off with a tripping call.

At 7:52 Glover and Forgrave delighted the 504 spectators and both teams with a lively bout at centre ice.

With the game tied 3-3 and the two clubs inching towards overtime a turnover at the Rocket blueline resulted in the winning goal.  Rocket defenseman Braeden Bowers had problems with a bouncing puck sending Cale Allen, Chris Playfair and Blake McConville in on an odd-man break.  Allen’s one-timer buried a cross-ice pass giving Weir no chance on the play.  The goal came with 5:18 remaining in regulation time.

The Rockets came close to tying the game when Griggs blasted a shot off the crossbar with 2:40 left on the clock.  Weir was pulled for an extra attacker in final minute with Griggs nearly finding the equalizer with a jam play at the side of the net.

Third period shots were 17-12 for the Rockets.  LaSalle outshot the Rockets 47-42.  The Vipers finished 2 for 6 on the powerplay.  The Rockets went 1 for 4.

In the other three Western Conference series, Chatham leads St. Thomas 3-0, Leamington enjoys a 3-0 lead on Sarnia and London is up 2-1 on St. Marys.

(photo – Strathroy Rocket goaltender Zack Weir peers out around Rocket defender Greg Mark’s (5) legs as the entire Rocket team converges for control of the puck.  Spencer Allen (19) swoops up the rolling puck as Rocket captain Lucas Latina (22) keeps LaSalle Viper sniper Daniel Beaudoin (43) in check.  The Vipers took control of the quarterfinal series with 6-3, 5-3 and 4-3 victories leading the best of seven quarterfinals 3-0. Colleen Wiendels Photography)

David Honsberger

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