On Saturday afternoon, an overtime game-winning goal by Jake Evans snapped the Laval Rocket’s early season losing streak, and grabbed them two points they likely should have earned in many other games leading up to this point. That contest was a chippy, physical affair between the North Division rivals, and it was likely to carry over into Wednesday night’s matchup.
The Rocket lineup was significantly different than the one from the previous meetings, with Michael McCarron out due to an upper-body injury, and star forward Kenny Agostino on recall to the Montreal Canadiens. Nikita Scherbak became the focal point of the offence as he continued his conditioning stint, and some pressure shifted to under-performing veterans to step up in Agostino’s absence.
After a hard-fought victory, Michael McNiven earned a second straight start, while the veteran Charlie Lindgren served as his backup against Ivan Kulbakov and the Comets.
It was a delayed launch for the Rocket in this contest, with the team taking several minutes to even earn possession of their puck outside of their defensive zone. Once they found their legs, however, the Rocket offence began to show signs of what they were capable of, piling up solid looks on Kulbakov. The Belarusian netminder remained flawless in the first half of the period.
A Jonah Gadjovich hooking call sent Laval to a power play, but the man advantage lasted less than a minute. Michael Chaput got a little too close to the Utica net and was whistled for roughing in the ensuing scrum.
Things got worse from there. On the penalty kill following the four-on-four, Byron Froese buried Zack MacEwen from behind, earning a five-minute major penalty for boarding.
To make matters even worse, Alexandre Grenier took a high-sticking penalty while killing off Froese’s penalty, giving Utica a five-on-three power play. It took only 10 seconds for Jonathan Dahlen to feed a pass across the crease to Tanner Kero for the opening goal of the game. That goal broke Laval’s perfect road penalty kill for this season, after surviving 18 straight sentences.
Kero struck again shortly thereafter as well, corralling a loose rebound from a Guillaume Brisebois shot and backhanding the puck past McNiven for another power-play goal.
The Rocket were handed a big chance to climb out of the two-goal deficit to start the second period with McEwen being given a minor for roughing as the first period came to a close. The Rocket couldn’t convert on that power play, but their offence still roared to life in the opening seven minutes of the period, scoring three goals to storm into the lead.
First up was Alexandre Grenier, who was looking to make up for his earlier penalty, and he jumped all over a massive Froese rebound to poke home his third goal of the year.
Alexandre Grenier scores his third goal of the year, cutting into the Utica lead. pic.twitter.com/kyhcqB110Q— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 8, 2018
With Ashton Sautner sitting for cross-checking, the Rocket power play struck in a big way. A tic-tac-toe play started with Froese as he passed the puck off to Grenier, who was to the left of the Utica net. The veteran then dished across the crease to a wide-open Daniel Audette who made no mistake by blasting home the one-timer.
Daniel Audette converts on a perfect cross ice pass from Grenier, and the Rocket tie the game 2-2! pic.twitter.com/8nKtEi2ItC— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 8, 2018
A pair of rookies found the third Laval goal of the period, as smart forechecking by Lukas Vejdemo forced a Utica turnover. The Swedish forward calmly collected the puck and picked out a streaking Alexandre Alain. The rookie forward went off the crossbar and in for his first professional goal, and a temporary Laval lead.
Alexandre Alain with his first professional goal for the Laval Rocket! pic.twitter.com/ypGhhP3nD2— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 8, 2018
Olli Juolevi was the catalyst in tying the game back up for Utica. His shot caromed off of McNiven’s pads, and MacEwen was all over the rebound, beating the Rocket netminder for his fifth goal of the year.
That also marked the end of the night for McNiven as Joël Bouchard opted to put Charlie Lindgren back between the pipes. McNiven finished with 14 saves on 17 shots.
The physical play ramped up from there, as expected, with everything coming to a head when Jalen Chatfield and Grenier got into a heated tussle in front of the Comets’ net. Without any punches thrown, the duo would sit two minutes apiece.
There weren’t any more goals in the middle period, but the game intensity had hit a boiling point, and continued to simmer right until the final horn.
The Comets’ lack of discipline robbed them of the momentum they had created with their game-tying goal in the second period. With Laval killing off an early Jake Evans high-sticking infraction, the Rocket turned the pressure back on Utica in their own end. The result was a Vincent Arseneau high-sticking minor.
While the result did not count as a power-play marker, the Rocket took the lead back as Arseneau exited the penalty box, as Michael Chaput dealt the blow to his former club. Brett Kulak got the puck to Evans at the point, and the rookie let a shot fly toward the net. It was Chaput who deftly redirected the puck past Kulbakov for a 4-3 Rocket lead.
Michael Chaput re-directs a Jake Evans shot, and the Rocket lead 4-3 in the third period. pic.twitter.com/1B6sCwUEJ9— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 8, 2018
There were a few nervy moments in the closing minutes of the game, but a Tanner MacMaster penalty neutralized the Utica goalie pull late in the game. A smart rush by Grenier forced Kulbakov back to his net on the following power play, and that would be all from Utica as the Rocket took their second straight game from the Comets, in a close affair.
Laval now heads off to Ohio for a two-game stint against the Cleveland Monsters on Friday and Saturday. As another back-to-back, it’s likely that the lineup will shuffle around slightly to rotate players through.
1. Michael Chaput (1 Goal)
2. Tanner Kero (2 Goals)
3. Jonathan Dahlen (2 Assists)