The Laval Rocket were back to action on Wednesday after the Christmas break, with the first of three games before the New Year, starting with the Rochester Americans and their goaltender Linus Ullmark, the AHL Player of the Week.
The Americans are near the top of the North Division, and if the Rocket hope to see playoff action this season, every single divisional game is a crucial must-win for the team. The Rocket have had a very rough month of December, collecting only six points in ten games, on pace for their worst December in the Sylvain Lefebvre era.
The Rocket are hurt by the fact that many players have been recalled to the Montreal Canadiens, including defencemen Brett Lernout and Jakub Jerabek.
La formation du Rocket ce soir!— Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) December 27, 2017
Tonight's lineup! pic.twitter.com/tsXfXEt00D
Scratches remained the same as they have for a while now, notably Thomas Ebbing, David Broll, and Willie Corrin.
Markus Eisenschmid opened the scoring for the Rocket eight minutes into the game by recovering a loose puck in the Amerks zone on a failed zone exit by the Rochester team. The German forward made no mistake and snapped the puck over Ullmark’s shoulder on an unassisted go-ahead goal.
Markus Eisenschmid puts the Rocket ahead 1-0 on a terrible Amerks giveaway. pic.twitter.com/LMSIQYp6Wf— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) December 28, 2017
It was one of only seven shots that the Rocket had in the first period, four of which came from the fourth line of Kyle Baun, Jordan Boucher, and Eisenschmid.
Meanwhile one of the 10 shots for the Amerks managed to hit the back of the net when Colin Blackwell out-battled Adam Cracknell, Eric Gelinas, and Matt Taormina in front of a wide open net when Charlie Lindgren was caught out of position, swatting the loose puck into the net to tie the game at one.
Overall Lindgren had a solid game, stopping 31 of 32 shots he faced on the night.
The game remained tied throughout the second period as Ullmark continued on his remarkable streak that earned him the AHL Player of the Week honours. He notably stopped Jeremy Gregoire with a tremendous glove save, one of 12 shots that he faced in the second period from a determined Rocket team.
The Rocket’s momentum came to an end by the end of the second period when Chris Terry took a double-minor penalty for high sticking. The Rocket killed it off however, going a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill. It’s been the failure of the penalty kill this season that has cost the Rocket a lot of grief. Tom Parisi brought up in the post-game interview on 91.9 that the team focused on not just maintaining the penalty kill structure, but in the case of a break in the formation, that other players would immediately cover for the error, something that’s been missing according to him.
Nikita Scherbak continued on his hot streak since returning from injury by scoring the eventual game-winning goal when he snapped the puck from nearly the identically same spot from where Eisenschmid scored his goal earlier in the game.
Nikita Scherbak gives the Rocket the lead 2-1 five minutes into the third period. pic.twitter.com/p07ybRQG7R— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) December 28, 2017
The game was in the final stretches of the third period, and the Rocket were up by a single goal, when Scherbak took an unacceptable boarding penalty on Colin Blackwell, putting the team at a man disadvantage.
Nikita Scherbak takes a brainless boarding penalty after the whistle late into the third of a one-goal game. pic.twitter.com/zSV4FFkNu6— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) December 28, 2017
The Rocket were able to kill the penalty, and Chris Terry put a final stamp on the game by scoring his 17th goal of the season into an empty net to put the Amerks away 3-1 and earn a couple of very important points.
However the talk after the game, beyond initial relief at the result, was of course Scherbak’s penalty. In a post-game interview with 91.9, Scherbak accepted his mea culpas with humility, explaining what was going through his head.
He didn’t appreciate that Blackwell took a shot on net after the whistle and wanted to send a message. He did feel bad though because the player hit the boards awkwardly and appeared to be hurt. He didn’t want to be vicious, but he couldn’t allow a player to take liberties with his goalie. Scherbak realized that he made a mistake however and fessed up.
Rocket head coach Sylvain Lefebvre did not appreciate the gesture at all, saying that he was “boiling from rage”, that it was “unacceptable” and “better not become a habit.” Lefebvre went on say that it wasn’t the first time Scherbak let his emotions get the better of him, and that it can really hurt his career. “He’s still young with a hot temper. He’s competitive, but he just has to be careful. He owes his teammates for that one”, concluded Lefebvre.
Scherbak received the first star of the game for his goal, but certainly it’s his penalty that the coaches will remember.
The Rocket play Thursday against the Belleville Senators before playing the Americans again on Saturday to complete the road trip.