Mired in an 12-game losing streak and winning just 2 games in their prior 22 contests Strathroy Rocket general manager Mike Bondy sent a clear message to his troops by disposing of MVP goaltender Zack Weir and two other Rocket teammates. The deals sent shock waves through the Rocket dressing room and the GOJHL Western Conference.  Sitting precariously in the eighth and final playoff position and just a single point above the last place St. Marys Lincolns and five points below the seventh place Komoka Kings, Bondy has made every effort to improve his club’s chances on securing a playoff berth.  The Rockets have qualified for the post-season for the last 13 years.  They have missed the playoffs just once in the past 22 seasons (2003-04).

Gone are Rocket defenseman Andrew Bugeja who was sent to the PJHL Mount Brydges Bulldogs while forward Joe Capirchio was reassigned to the Lambton AAA Jr. Sting Major Midgets.   The Rockets added rearguard and Mount Brydges native Austin Crouse from the PJHL North Middlesex Stars.  The big signing was the acquisition of goaltender Vince Michelizzi.  The 6’ 1” 176 lb Newmarket native is 19-year-old and comes to the Rockets from the OJHL Newmarket Hurricanes where Michelizzi had a 2-3-1 record with a 2.74 GAA and an 89.6 S%.  The backstop is a product of the Mississauga Rebels AAA Minor Midgets and the North York Rangers AAA Major Midgets.  Michelizzi has also seen action with the GMOHL and PJHL Schomberg Cougars and the OJHL Aurora Tigers.

Michelizzi’s arrival meant the departure of popular goaltender Weir.  Speculation Wednesday night was that Weir was on the trading block as Bondy remained in Strathroy as the Rockets travelled to LaSalle to battle the Vipers.  Assistant coach Jason Furlong assumed the temporary head coaching duties.  Apparently no deal could be reached for Weir, who many consider the top netminder in the Western Conference, and the former London National has been assigned to Junior C with the PJHL Lambeth Lancers.

After the wheeling and dealing the Rockets will go the rest of the way with a 21-man roster comprising 2 goaltenders, 7 defensemen and 12 forwards.

The game in LaSalle should been the Rockets’ third game of the new year but with Mother Nature burying Strathroy in snow a pair of games had to be postponed.  The Rockets were unable to travel to St. Thomas to play the Stars on Friday, January 5th and the Chatham Maroons were unable to make their way to Strathroy the following night.

In a fast-paced game that featured few stoppages and plenty of extended plays the Vipers doubled up the Rockets 4-2.  The win improved the Vipers’ season series over the Rockets to 3-1 with 2 games yet to be played.  LaSalle picked up a pair of important points moving 1 point below the second place Leamington Flyers and separating themselves somewhat from Sarnia and St. Thomas.  The Rockets have won just 1 game at the Volmer in LaSalle in their last 15 visits.

Rocket goaltender Josh Diamond’s elusive first win of his GOJHL career still eluded his grasp.  Despite Diamond’s stellar play his record dropped to 0-9.  Once again Diamond received little in goal support as the Rockets managed just 19 shots on Viper keeper Dershahn Stewart.  Diamond faced 29 shots in this tight checking affair.

Aaron Shaw scored the only goal of the first period on a 2 on 2 at 10:17.  Shaw toe-dragged the puck around a Rocket defender and ripped a shot over Diamond’s shoulder into the top corner on his glove side.

The Rockets continued to hang in tough against the powerful Vipers.  After the two clubs battled through a scoreless second period the two teams combined for 5 third period goals on just 15 shots.  The Vipers increased their lead to 2-0 on a lovely tic-tac-toe passing play with Manny Silverio and Aiden Ryan hooking passes to triggerman Brett Vorshuk at 5:59.

Undeterred, Rocket scoring leader TJ Harris broke Stewart’s shutout bid on a powerplay with a shot to the top corner from the top of the faceoff circle with 8:21 remaining in regulation time.  The goal broke over 5 periods of scoreless hockey by the Rockets in LaSalle this season.

The Vipers restored their 2-goal lead at 15:30 when Eric Kirby tallied a highlight reel goal dancing across the front of the Rocket net out-waiting Diamond and forcing the Rocket keeper to the ice before firing the puck over the prone goaltender while Kirby was falling to the ice.  The large crowd of 442 fans had barely stopped cheering when Rocket Spencer Allen capitalized on a Viper defenseman’s turnover off the ensuing faceoff just 6 seconds after the Kirby goal to cut the lead once again back to within a goal.  It would be as close as the Rockets would get.  Kirby registered his second goal of the period at 18:17 with Rocket Braeden Bowers off for a roughing penalty.  The opportunistic Kirby was in the right place to bury the rebound off of a Frank Zak point shot.

The Vipers out-duelled the Rockets in the faceoff circle winning 38 of 69 draws (55.1%).  Allen was the top faceoff man for the Rockets winning 18 of 30 (60.0%).  Nicolas Grandy had a nice outing as well winning 7 of 12 faceoffs (59.3%).  Rocket defenseman Liam Israels was selected as the Rockets hardest working player.  Both clubs connected once on the powerplay.  The Rockets had 4 chances, while the Vipers, who are the least penalized team in the GOJHL, had 3 chances.

The Rockets will be looking to snap their losing streak and introduce their new faces to the Rocket faithful at the WMMC on Saturday, January 13 when they welcome the first place London Nationals.  The following week they will have a home and home with the second place Flyers.  The Rockets will travel to the land of the celebrated bacon cheeseburger on Thursday, January 18 before hosting Leamington on Saturday, January 20.

(The Strathroy Rockets’ new goaltender Vince Michelizzi is pictured here in a 2014-15 photo with the North York Rangers AAA Major Midgets. This was one of five changes made by the Rockets on the January 10 trading deadline. Photo credit – Naomi Strasser)

David Honsberger

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