The Lions de Trois-Rivières are in the midst of the roughest patch of their season. The ECHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens has won only one of its last eight games, as ongoing roster instability is beginning to take its toll on everyone, not just physically where the remaining regular players are seeing tremendous minutes on the ice, but also psychologically as the lack of consistency and stunted growth is beginning to be felt. The coaching team seems to be stuck in an endless loop of onboarding new players, at the expense of making progress in the development of the regulars.
As the on-ice team struggles, one needs only to look toward the AHL to see the positive impact that Montreal’s three-tier development system has already had. Peter Abbandonato, Cam Hillis, and Shawn St-Amant have become regulars on the Laval Rocket, and Alexis D’Aoust continues in his quest to earn an AHL deal for next season with his sixth PTO of the year on a fourth AHL team, earning the second star of the night with a two-point game for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
That is certainly the double-edged sword of being an ECHL team. As soon as a player excels, he moves up an echelon, leaving a core of gatekeepers behind to hold the team together while management tries to find mid-season replacements. For the Lions, these gatekeepers are Anthony Nellis, Olivier Archambault, Cédric Montminy, Olivier Galipeau, and Mathieu Brodeur.
It would be an impossible exercise to fully document all the players who joined and/or left the Lions last week. Suffice to say that they are up to 69 unique contracts, with several players getting a couple of deals to bookend a release. Marc-André Bergeron is doing his best to find players to fill spots in the lineup, with the majority coming from the Quebec Senior AAA Hockey League now that the LNAH is off-limits. Of note, they signed Fabien Laniel, a 37-year-old scout for the Gatineau Olympiques. He played one game before being released, as many other signees along with him.
The Lions were dealt another blow when AHL-contracted defenceman Carl Neill left the Lions to play in Europe. He was the second one to do this after Charles-David Beaudoin made the move last month.
To fill the gap, the Lions acquired defenceman Gabriel Belley-Pelletier from the Fort Wayne Komets in a trade for cash. The Lions don’t exactly have much trade capital, nor do they want to trade away French-Canadians that they fought to lure to Trois-Rivières to begin with.
At least the Manitoba Moose returned goaltender Philippe Desrosiers, which then led the team to cut Tristan Bérubé and keep Anthony-Carmine Pagliarulo. Pagliarulo did end up beating Bérubé for the backup role after the latter began to struggle in net.
Wednesday night, Lions lose 4-3 to Adirondack
Following the fracas from last week’s Lions/Growlers finale, Mathieu Gagnon was suspended three games and Jonathan Joannette was suspended for two games, leaving the Lions scrambling to fill in the ranks. The game could not have started any worse for the Lions, as Adirondack scored 15 seconds into the game on the first shot.
The Lions regrouped quickly and started applying the pressure to erase the deficit, but the tide began to turn again at the midway point of the period, until a point shot deflected off of Belley-Pelletier, and past Desrosiers to put the Thunder up 2-0.
It was 3-0 after two periods, as the Thunder scored with 10 seconds left on another deflection. The second period was mostly even, but against the Lions could not buy a goal.
The Lions did start the third period the way they needed to when Montminy rushed into the Thunder zone and backhanded the puck into the net in the 23rd second of play to put them in the game.
Both teams tightened up the defence, but the Lions were determined, and in the fourth minute it was Felix-Olivier Chouinard’s turn to light the lamp, bringing the Lions to within one goal, with a lot of period left to play.
Son deuxième de la saison, Félix-Olivier Chouinard— Lions de Trois-Rivières (@Lions3r) March 3, 2022
His second of the season, Félix-Olivier Chouinard pic.twitter.com/NliUFYwXjM
Unfortunately, a dominant third period would be fruitless, and with two minutes left and Desrosiers pulled in favour of an extra attacker, the Thunder buried the empty-net goal to put the game out of reach. William Leblanc scored his 10th goal of the season with nine seconds left, but it was too little too late, as the Lions fell to the lowly Adirondack Thunder.
Friday night, Lions lose 5-0 to Indy
The downside of following the ECHL is that because of the tight budgetary constraints teams tend to play within the division and geographic proximity. The last time the Lions played a non-divisional opponent was early December against the Florida Everblades, when the Lions were at the height of their season in the middle of their seven-game winning streak.
This team was different. Only eight players where in the lineup who were there in Florida. That’s over a 50% roster turnover. The Indy Fuel are the ECHL affiliate of the Chicago Blackhawks, making their first trip to Trois-Rivières.
The start of the game was hesitant, as both teams studied each other and were careful not to make any mistakes. Only Indy managed to score on a wraparound rebound. The rest of the period was a rather timid affair.
The Lions kept getting opportunity after opportunity to bury the Fuel, whether it be successive power plays, a breakaway, a penalty shot for Archambault, posts, or a very questionable refused goal for Tyler Boivin due to goaltender interference, the Lions were unable take control of the game.
Two goals within 180 seconds changed everything, as Indy’s 3-0 lead seemed insurmountable. The Lions only had 13 shots on goal after two periods, despite five power plays. The Fuel would add a couple more goals in the third period in a somnolent game to easily take this one 5-0.
Saturday afternoon, Lions lose 4-3 to Indy
The Lions were determined in the first period. They applied all sorts of pressure, but could not get the puck past Cale Morris. Indy once again scored first, but the Lions responded when William Leblanc scored the tying goal less than a minute later.
Larivière à Desruisseaux à Leblanc et le but !!— Lions de Trois-Rivières (@Lions3r) March 5, 2022
Larivière to Desruisseaux to Leblanc and score !! pic.twitter.com/Sy754rLPCe
The Lions continued to apply the pressure, but just couldn’t close the deal on a go-ahead goal in the first period. The power play has been downright awful, but they finally scored on the man advantage in the second period to give the Lions their first lead of the week.
Indy would tie it before the end of the period however, as they completely took over the game. A dominant start to the third period resulted in them taking the lead back from the Lions, going up 3-2.
Whatever the Lions had left they put into an attempted comeback, as they caused Indy to take a penalty and scored a second power-play goal on the night, when Hayden Shaw’s point shot made it past the goal line to make it 3-3.
The Lions just ran out of gas as the Fuel took over control of the period, scoring a fourth goal and shutting down Trois-Rivières’ opportunities. It was an unfortunate ending to a never-say-die game from the Lions. It was their fourth loss in a row.
The week featured three loses to teams at the bottom of their respective divisions. The Lions keep their grip on third place in the North Division, but they need to start putting together some wins soon as the Maine Mariners and Worcester Railers are slowly closing the gap.
Now comes the hard part. The Lions will travel to St. John’s for a four-game series against the Newfoundland Growlers this coming week. The last time these two teams played against one another the fireworks flew, and the three-game suspension that Mathieu Gagnon earned for his shenanigans has just expired.