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Laval @ Charlotte recap and highlights: Solid effort not enough as Checkers sweep Rocket

A great response from the previous game didn’t lead to a better result as the Rocket dropped the weekend series in Carolina.

Saturday evening’s game was a tough pill to swallow for the Laval Rocket. They had to match up with the AHL’s best team while down their top players. The result was a 16-shot effort in a 4-2 loss. They battled early on, but the deep Checkers side found its stride and came away with the win. It wasn’t all bad: the Rocket limited the Charlotte offence to under 30 shots as well, but a lack of discipline is what inevitably undid a decent effort.

Sunday’s game saw a few lineup changes, starting with Michael McNiven taking over in net from Charlie Lindgren. Both Michael Pezzetta and Hayden Verbeek drew back in as Daniel Audette and Antoine Waked were the healthy scratches. The Rocket skated seven defenders during warm-ups, but in the end Ryan Culkin replaced Adam Plant.

McNiven had to be sharp early on, as the Checkers swarmed all over the Laval defensive zone, but the young netminder was equal to the task, turning away a handful of dangerous looks. With half the period gone, McNiven made a diving paddle save on Andrew Poturalski, but Michal Moravcik took a hooking penalty in the scramble, sending Laval to an early penalty kill.

While killing the penalty, Michael McCarron chose to charge through Callum Booth, taking a penalty in the process. On the ensuing 5-on-3 power play, Aleksi Saarela scored the opening goal, putting the Rocket in an early hole again.

Laval could not find their legs for most of the period, as they went nearly 16 minutes with just one shot on net, and Charlotte smothering all of their breakout attempts. With just over three minutes remaining, however, the Rocket finally found a breakthrough. Alex Belzile worked off the left wall toward the net, and as he cut across the faceoff circle he picked out McCarron and fired a pass toward the big forward. A smart redirect by McCarron tied up the game, on just the second shot of the period.

That was how the sides went into the intermission, tied at one goal each, with Charlotte controlling the flow of play but tied with the opportunistic Rocket.

An early tripping penalty in the second period by Valentin Zykov gave Laval a great chance to steal a lead from the Checkers. They nearly did, too, with Jake Evans firing a tough shot that had to be knocked away quickly. Dennis Robertson saved another likely goal on the kill as well. With a shot fluttering toward the back of the net, the Charlotte defender swiped the puck out of the air, and away from danger.

Even without a goal the Rocket took the man advantage situation to dominate the flow of the period, piling up an 8-1 shot advantage in the opening 13 minutes. The suddenly sharp Rocket received another power play thanks to a trip by Roland McKeown, and were granted a chance to take a lead.

The power play couldn’t find the same ferocity from their earlier man advantage, but they were given another chance thanks to Nicolas Roy being whistled for interference with just over three minutes remaining. A heavy shift by the Rocket power play was cut short when Belzile tripped up a Checkers player, sending the play to 4-on-4. The abbreviated power play for Charlotte didn’t yield even a single shot, and heading into the second intermission the teams were still tied.

With a dominant second period in their pocket, the Rocket looked poised to press for a big win in the third period, and started off right where they left off in the second. A handful of quick saves by McNiven when called upon kept the Checkers off the board, but the Laval counterattack pushed back as well.

Despite Laval’s pressure in the final two periods, the much deeper Checkers would take the lead with just over half the period gone thanks to Martin Necas. A deflected pass in the air landed in front of Roy, who in turn fired a shot off the pads of an outstretched McNiven. Unfortunately, Necas was right on the spot to wrap the loose puck around McNiven’s skate, giving Charlotte the lead with 9:44 to play.

The teams continued to trade chances, with Booth and McNiven each coming up big as the minutes ticked away in the final period. With McNiven headed to the bench for an extra attacker, the Checkers sealed the game with a McKeown empty-net goal, sending Laval out of Carolina with no points.

The effort was there; in fact, against the AHL’s best team, the weary Rocket limited a very deep team to 25 shots or less in each game. Laval very clearly misses offensive pieces Brett Kulak and Kenny Agostino, and with the Canadiens getting players back soon those two could be back in a Rocket sweater in the near future.

Laval now will return home for a Wednesday night game with the Belleville Senators, which, like many of their previous meetings, should be a hotly contested affair.

Three Stars

1. Callum Booth (26 Saves, Win)

2. Martin Necas (1 Goal, 1 Assist)

3. Aleksi Saarela (1 Goal)