The Lions de Trois-Rivières returned to action for one game last weekend after a prolonged Christmas break due schedule disruption caused by the pandemic that has been wreaking havoc on professional sports, especially in Canada.
Following the renewed measures from the Québec provincial government to try to contain a major resurgence of the coronavirus, the Lions were prepared to play some empty-arena games to honour the schedule, but first the Adirondack game in Trois-Rivières was cancelled due to positive tests on the Thunder, and then the Growlers game was postponed at the last minute due to positive tests for Newfoundland, cancelling a two-game set. By the time all was said and done, the Lions only played one of five scheduled games since Christmas.
Takes a deep breath
The Laval Rocket had no choice but to recall pretty much everyone that they could in order to practise with a full lineup. They recalled goaltender Kevin Poulin, defencemen Charles-David Beaudoin, and forwards Peter Abbandonato, Shawn St-Amant, and Justin Ducharme. Meanwhile, Philippe Desrosiers was also recalled to the Manitoba Moose.
In addition, Carmine-Anthony Pagliarulo, Olivier Archambault, Guillaume Beaudoin, and Cédric Desruisseaux were added to the Commissioner's Exempt List, which is the ECHL’s language for a player being unavailable to play due to exposure or infection of COVID-19.
This obviously made things very tricky for Marc-André Bergeron who had to once again reach out to the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey for substitute players. Unfortunately for him, some of his better recent emergency signings, forward Maxime St-Cyr and defencemen Bureau-Blais, were claimed off of waivers by the Maine Mariners, just to cause complications for the Lions. Both players were suspended for refusing to report to Maine, and are therefore unavailable to the Lions. Bergeron even had to sign a goaltender, Tristan Bérubé, out of the University of Ottawa, and Thomas Ethier from the Québec Senior AAA Hockey League, reaching beyond the LNAH to fill gaps in the roster.
It wasn’t just players who were hit with the outbreak, but Bergeron as well, plus assistant coach Pascal Rhéaume. The Lions quickly added to their bench to fill the gap.
Alex Boucher (@a_butch41) a passé les cinq derniers jours dans l’environnement des @Lions3r !— Estacades Hockey (@EstacadesHockey) January 3, 2022
Il était derrière le banc aux côtés d’Éric Bélanger au cours de la défaite de 5 à 3 face au Maine. #GrandirEnsemble pic.twitter.com/lWUMgE5lhg
Friday night, Lions lose 5-3 vs. Maine
At least there was one game to watch. If the Lions didn’t release any lines before the game, it is quite understandable, as eight players were making their Lions debut, and head coach Eric Bélanger was about to get to know half his lineup in real-time. There were very few stable pairings left, with Cédric Montminy and Anthony DeLuca remaining together as a forward duo with Nicolas Larivière being added on wing, while the top pairing of Alexis D’Aoust and Anthony Nellis auditioned several new wingers, including Olivier Hinse and Simon-Claude Blackburn.
It was the latter who helped set up the first goal of the game for the Lions by attacking the slot with a burst of speed, drawing two defencemen toward him, and passing to D’Aoust, who charged to the front of the net for the tap-in goal. D’Aoust was willing to pay the price on the goal, getting run from behind for his effort, but he was none worse for wear.
Alexis D'Aoust!!! 1-0 #Lions3R pic.twitter.com/rNIjnxJpaB— Lions de Trois-Rivières (@Lions3r) December 31, 2021
The Lions applied consistent pressure the entire first period, dominating the Mariners in shots 10-4, forcing Mariners goaltender Jeremy Brodeur to make a few big saves to keep the game from getting out of control. The Mariners did not have an answer to the Lions’ intensity, especially when the Lions’ top unit was on the ice with the top defensive pairing of Hayden Shaw and Olivier Galipeau.
The second period completely reversed momentum in the game, as the Lions were unable to stay out of the penalty box, taking five minor penalties while the Mariners took three, killing any flow to the game. But despite the parade of penalties, it was an exciting span of 35 seconds where the teams traded three goals, with the Lions first scoring a short-handed goal, the first for the Lions by Gabriel Verpaelst, then the Mariners breaking the ice on the same power play. The Lions immediately responded when Anthony DeLuca and Anthony Nellis broke into the Mariners’ zone on a two-on-one, which worked out in their favour to put them up 3-1 midway through the game.
Anthony Nellis !! 3-1 #Lions3r pic.twitter.com/j873HuGZml— Lions de Trois-Rivières (@Lions3r) December 31, 2021
That would be the last goal for the Lions, as the Mariners got the next four, starting with a power-play goal on a penalty to DeLuca, who took a necessary goal-saving penalty The Lions nearly killed the penalty, but the Mariners managed to bring it to a critical 3-2 in the final 90 seconds of the middle period. A crossbar by Nellis with eight seconds left deprived the Lions their third two-goal lead. D’Aoust had points on all three Lions goals.
Tristan Bérubé, still wearing his University of Ottawa equipment, was playing is his first professional game, and seemed nervous at times in goal for the Lions, giving some rebounds and fighting the puck a lot. The stingy Lions defence made sure to keep the slot protected at all times, cleaning up rebounds and giving Bérubé time to freeze or play the puck. Berube was lucky in the third period when he played the puck behind the net and passed it right to a Mariners player who couldn’t take advantage of an empty net.
The Lions didn’t have a bad third period, but they didn’t really generate the sort of offence that they have in past games. Former Laval Rocket forward Alex Kile tied the game up with his fifth goal in two games since coming back from injury, and then the Mariners took the lead for good when Philippe Charbonneau tried a long two-line outlet pass that went right onto a Mariner’s stick which created an odd-man rush, and generated a shot from the slot. Bérubé was pulled for the extra attacker, which led to a great goal-line save by Jéremy Brodeur on Olivier Hinse. The Mariners got the empty net goal to seal their victory.
It wasn’t a bad effort by the Lions, and the win was within their reach, but the lack of depth caught up with them. This was the first game of the season the Lions lost after being ahead after two periods.
The sky falls
Mere hours ahead of Sunday’s game in Glen Falls against the Adirondack Thunder, the ECHL announced that the game would be postponed, as the Lions announced a long list of infected players.
Mathieu Brodeur— Lions de Trois-Rivières (@Lions3r) January 2, 2022
They followed that up by announcing that they are shutting down for an indefinite period, and that their three-game series in Newfoundland against the Growlers on January 7, 8, and 9 has been postponed.
The players were thankfully able to return to Canada, with the players who tested negative returning on the team bus, and the players who tested positive riding back in rented mini-vans.
The ECHL is still hoping to have its All-Star Classic on January 17. Certainly the Lions should be back in action before then, but as for which player will represent the team will depend on who has been cleared to play, and which players are returned by Manitoba and Laval.
To end this report on a positive note, Cam Hillis became the first Lions player to play in the NHL when he made his debut with the Montreal Canadiens. It was certainly not under the circumstances that anyone envisioned, but it counts, and will go down in history as a trivia fact.
Cameron Hillis, who has skated in six games this season with @Lions3r is the 716th former #ECHL player to reach @NHL with his debut this afternoon for @CanadiensMTL pic.twitter.com/XOZjpJiTfy— ECHL (@ECHL) January 1, 2022