Coming off their huge 3-1 win over first place Binghamton last Saturday, the Motor City Rockers looked to keep things rolling in a positive direction with another weekend battle against their I-94 rivals, the Port Huron Prowlers. Coming into this weekend, the FPHL's only two Michigan teams had faced each other eleven times, with the Rockers having won six of those contests. But Motor City won the first four meetings of the season between the two teams, so the Prowlers have rebounded to make the Battle of I-94 close with seven contests still remaining, including the two this weekend.
Before we get to the games, a quick look at what changed for Motor City roster-wise. And it was a fairly quiet week for roster moves with a notable exception. On Thursday, Jonathan Juliano had his PTO extended for another four games, while the Rockers activated two players from injured reserve. Forward TJ Sneath is back to help add depth to the offense. Sneath had scored nine goals in just thirteen games before getting hurt. But the big news of the week was the return of team captain Danny Vanderwiel,who has been out since December 2nd. By now, we all know the story. Vanderwiel was on the receiving end of a dangerous, dirty hit by then Danbury forward Daniel Amesbury, who afterwards was first suspended for eighteen games, and then subsequently banished from the league indefinitely. Thankfully, over two months later, Vanderwiel, an actual hockey player and not a circus sideshow like Amesbury, was given the all clear to return to the ice for game action. The only downside of Motor City getting healthy was that meant someone had to go to open up a roster spot and unfortunately it was forward Adam Kuhn. Kuhn, who had not played professionally since the 2011-12 season with Pensacola of the SPHL, fit right in with the Rockers, scoring six goals and adding four assists for ten points in sixteen games. Adam is from Southgate and is another of those local players who could be called on when needed if another roster spot opens up, so we may not have seen the last of him. His contributions while the team was shorthanded will not be forgotten, best of luck to Adam.
Now on to the action on the ice, starting with Friday night's match-up in Port Huron. Trevor Babin got the start in net for the Rockers while Port Huron countered with Ian Wallace. After a scoreless first period, Motor City turned it up in the second, beating Wallace three times. Tristen Wells got things started at 5:49 with his fourth goal of the season from Jamie Milam. Then Milam got one of his own from almost the exact same spot at 13:49 from Ryan Rotondi and George Holt, his eighth of the season. Scott Coash then picked up his nineteenth of the season from Pavel Svintsov at 15:17 to make it 3-0 Rockers after two. Motor City would add two more in the third, first from Josh Colten, his ninth from Coash and Mike Winn at 2:39. Milam picked up his second of the game, and ninth of the season, on the power play from the returning captain Danny Vanderwiel and TJ Delaney at 6:01. Unfortunately, Austin Fetterly spoiled Babin's shutout bid at 14:41 with his twelfth goal, but the Rockers still cruised to the commanding 5-1 win with Babin stopping 33 of 34 Port Huron shots. As you'd expect, once Motor City opened up the 5-0 lead, the Prowlers resorted to some dirty tactics, setting the stage for Saturday night's rematch back in Fraser.
Babin would get the call in net again for Motor City at Big Boy Arena, while Port Huron started Makar Sokolov instead Saturday. The first period was pretty much controlled by the Prowlers and it paid off with a goal each from Dan Chartrand and Evan Foley for a 2-0 lead after one. The next goal in the game was absolutely critical and Babin kept Motor City's chance to get that goal intact with a spectacular save just 1:20 into the second. With the Rockers on the power play, the puck came out to center ice and sent the Prowlers in on a two on none break. Sam Marit sent the pass across to Alex Johnson but Babin went post to post for the stunning save to keep it 2-0. To me, this was the turning point of the game and sure enough, Motor City took advantage. After some steady pressure in the Port Huron zone, Mike Winn sent one towards the net that eluded Sokolov to cut the lead in half at 5:56. For Winn, it was his third goal of the season with the assists going to Josh Colten and TJ Sneath. Then with the Rockers back on the power play, Trevor Babin got himself on the scoresheet with an outlet pass to Josh Colten who found Scott Coash streaking to the net. Coash went to the backhand for his twentieth of the season at 8:19 to tie it at two where it stayed heading into the third. The assist was Babin's first point of the season.
The third period turned into a bit of a Ref Show as the Rockers found themselves shorthanded early and often. Tristen Wells got into a wrestling match at center ice with Port Huron's Bryan Parsons and found himself sent to the box with a double minor at 2:35. Enter the Motor City penalty kill which killed off both penalties with relative ease. But the Rockers couldn't relax for long as just two seconds after Wells left the box, Ryan Rotondi was headed in for a roughing call at 6:37. Motor City again killed that off. But just seconds later they were called for a too many men on the ice penalty at 8:55. And once again the penalty kill showed up big time. Then at 11:36, Jonathan Juliano snuck behind the defense and was sent in on a breakaway on a perfect pass from DeVon Fields where he beat Sokolov for the 3-2 Motor City lead. TJ Sneath picked up the other helper on Juliano's fourteenth of the season. A goal like that would normally be back breaking, and the Prowlers looked a bit stunned on the ice after failing to capitalize on all the power play time, but they had another chance at 14:27 when Fields was sent off for roughing on what looked to me like a clean open ice hit. The Rocker penalty kill again snuffed out the Port Huron power play, but the Prowlers were able to keep it in the Motor City zone and Evan Foley tipped in a loose puck to the side of Babin to tie it at three at 16:38. That's where things ended in regulation and this one was headed to overtime.
It did not take long for this one to be decided in the extra period as TJ Delaney and Josh Colten broke out on a two-on-one break. Delaney fed it to Colten who was stopped by Sokolov but that left a juicy rebound there for Delaney to bury into the back of the net for the game winner just 35 seconds into OT, his seventeenth of the season. And fittingly enough, on the weekend of his return, Danny Vanderwiel started the break-out with the other assist.
So the Rockers win both games this weekend, taking five of a possible six points from the Prowlers, to go up 8-5 in the Battle of I-94. With Binghamton off this weekend, Motor City shaved their deficit down to fifteen points behind the first place Black Bears, although the Rockers have played two more games. Danbury, however, had a good weekend against Watertown, picking up seven points in three games against the Wolves. So at the end of this weekend's play, Motor City leads the Hat Tricks by ten points for second place in the Empire Division, and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Things do not get any easier for the Rockers this weekend as the best team in the FPHL, the Columbus River Dragons, come to town for a three game set. Columbus has 27 regulation wins and another three wins in the overtime or shootout. They've only been beaten three times in regulation over 35 games this season. They're a juggernaut and this will be Motor City's biggest test yet this season. Last season the Rockers went 2-3 against Columbus in the regular season, with those two wins coming in a similar three game home stand at Big Boy Arena in March, including a 5-0 win and shutout for Trevor Babin. The two teams then met in the first round of the playoffs with the River Dragons sweeping the series 2-0. I'd happily take a repeat of last season's three game weekend and settle for two Motor City wins this year. It should be a great weekend of playoff level hockey at Big Boy Arena.
ROCK STAR OF THE WEEK: It's another week where I could just give it to Trevor Babin again given his near shutout Friday and his saves to keep Motor City in the game Saturday to help set the stage for the comeback victory. Josh Colten had a big weekend too with a goal and three assists. But the veteran Jamie Milam picked up two goals Friday, including the game winner, added an assist and even dropped the gloves. And of course, he was his usual rock steady self on the blueline all weekend, making him my Rock Star of the Week.
ROCKERS ON RECALL: Nick Magill-Diaz remains with the Birmingham Bulls of the SPHL where he has now played in eight games. He picked up an assist this weekend, so he now has a goal and an assist for the Bulls, while also boasting a +8 while on the ice.