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Laval Rocket weekend recap & highlights: Defensive disasters doom strong individual efforts

Poor play in the defensive zone spoiled a strong weekend from a pair of prospects.

Club de Hockey Canadien Inc

The Laval Rocket lost both their games at home this weekend, to the Hershey Bears and Toronto Marlies, making their playoff push seem like an even tougher task.

Friday: L 6-3 vs. Hershey

Laval kicked off their weekend homestand Friday night against the Hershey Bears, the first time that the AHL’s oldest franchise met the AHL’s newest franchise. The Rocket were coming off a well earned victory over the Belleville Senators on Wednesday night, where they used a pair of shorthanded goals to topple their divisional rivals.

Charlie Lindgren was between the pipes for the Rocket once again, backing him up was the rookie Michael McNiven while Zachary Fucale was on assignment in Brampton. The injury list remained as long as ever for the Rocket, with Matt Taormina and Chris Terry still out, and both Niki Petti and Yannick Veilleux also on the sidelines. For the Bears, they were without one of the AHL’s best players in Chris Bourque, who is in Korea representing his country at the Olympics, while starting in net was Vitek Vanacek.

A sleepy start saw neither side really assert themselves in the opening minutes of the game, and just seven minutes in there were only five shots between both sides. Even an early power play for the Rocket yielded no results, with the Bears stifling any and all Laval excursions into the offensive zone.

Zach Sill handed the Rocket a major opportunity with just under nine minutes left, when he slashed the stick out of the hands of Markus Eisenschmid. Unfortunately, the Rocket would not only fail to convert a goal, but surrendered a short-handed marker in the process. Jonas Siegenthaler dove and swiped the puck out of the zone, then Liam O’Brien blew past the Laval defence to get in alone on Charlie Lindgren before coolly finishing on his backhand for the opening goal of the game.

With less than 40 seconds left in the period, David Broll would take an ill-advised slashing penalty, giving the Bears a late power play. It would take them just 23 seconds to strike with Travis Boyd circling the offensive zone, and wiring a shot far side and in on Lindgren for a 2-0 Bears lead.

Laval managed to cut into the Bears lead just before the midway point of the second period with Noah Juulsen setting up Adam Cracknell’s 20th goal of the year. Right off the draw the puck came back tot Juulsen who uncorked a massive slapshot. Said shot would hit Cracknell and deflect in behind Vanacek, making Cracknell the second 20 goal scorer on the Rocket this year.

The joy was short-lived as it took 80 seconds for Travis Boyd to restore the two goal lead for Hershey with his second goal of the night. The pushback never came for the Rocket after this goal either, with a penalty kill coming shortly afterwards. The Bears were all over the Rocket zone, forcing Lindgren into all sorts of desperation saves.

There was finally a bright spot after an extended run of play by Hershey, it came in the form of Antoine Waked’s third goal on a breakaway. Daniel Audette picked Waked out behind the defence, and fed him a perfect pass. Waked broke in on net, deked Vanacek out and neatly tucked the puck in the net for a gorgeous goal to get Laval within one.

That would be the closest Laval would get for the rest of the game, as the third period saw the Rocket crash back to earth in spectacular fashion. Travis Boyd would complete his hat trick with a goal at 8:26 of the period, then tacked on another one for good measure with just over four minutes remaining. Then with the goalie pulled and on a power play, the Rocket would surrender a second short-handed goal to Liam O’Brien, sealing the game for the Bears. The game ended up an ugly note as well, with Riley Barber instigating a fight with the usually reserved Markus Eisenschmid as the final horn blew. Barber picked up a fighting major, a game misconduct, and a suspension for instigating in the final five minutes of a game, while Eisenschmid received just a major penalty.

A lone bright spot for the Rocket was the play of ECHL call-up Luc-Olivier Blain who had two points on the night, giving him three points in two games since being recalled from Brampton.

Three Stars

1. Travis Boyd, HER (4 goals)
2. Riley Barber, HER (2 assists)
3. Antoine Waked, LAV (1 goal)

Saturday: L 4-2 vs. Toronto

Following a disappointing showing against a struggling Hershey side, the Rocket would have to contend with the AHL’s hottest team in the Toronto Marlies. The only change of the night would be Michael McNiven taking over in net after Charlie Lindgren got the start the previous night. As for the Marlies, they would be missing Justin Holl on their blue line, while Calvin Pickard was between the pipes.

With both sides coming off poor games, each was looking to prove a point in a divisional clash. Through the one period though, only one team appeared to have showed up for the game. The Rocket not only gained the lead, but absolutely dominated the Marlies on the shot clock. Laval fired 16 shots on Pickard in the opening 20 minutes, with the Marlies managing just three of their own, even with the only power play of the period.

Laval opened the scoring on a great bit of work in front of the Marlies net, as Michael McCarron outworked Timothy Liljegren in front of the net to get a shot on Pickard. The rebound was kicked out and Antoine Waked pounced on the loose puck for his fourth goal of the year.

Laval was served a golden opportunity less than a minute into the second period, with the Marlies taking a too many men on the ice penalty, and giving a potent Rocket power play a chance to operate. A stingy penalty kill by the Marlies smothered the Rocket man advantage, and just after the penalty expired, Laval would take their own too many men penalty. As they often have this year against Laval, Toronto would cash in on their power play, with Miro Aaltonen deflecting an Andreas Johnsson shot past Michael McNiven to tie the game.

Even after Kyle Baun missed yawning cages on two separate occasions, the Rocket managed to retake the lead, and deservedly so. With Rinat Valiev in the box for interference the Rocket power play went back to work again, and McCarron continued his strong play on the night. Adam Cracknell fired a shot on net, McCarron stopped the puck, and fired a handful of shots in close, until the puck finally squeaked in the net for his seventh goal of the year.

After a near flawless two periods, the Rocket fell apart in the final 20 minutes, surrendering three goals in the final eight minutes of the game. After killing off the remainder of an Andrew Nielsen boarding penalty, the Marlies went back to work.

They found their breakthrough with just under eight minutes remaining. With Noah Juulsen laboring after a shot block, Kerby Rychel was left alone in front of McNiven. Martin Marincin got the puck on net, and for the second time that night a redirection beat McNiven to tie the game. Not content with possibly getting just a point the Marlies put their foot down, and a gorgeous passing play between Johnsson and Aaltonen led to Aaltonen’s second of the night, which would stand as the game winner. Johnsson would add an empty net goal to fully seal the game, an embarrassing loss for the Rocket after a hot start to the game.

Three Stars

1. Andreas Johnsson, TOR (1 goal, 2 assists)
2. Miro Aaltonen, TOR (2 goals)
3. Michael McCarron, LAV (1 goal, 1 assist)

The Rocket are off now until next Friday, when they’ll head into Utica for a showdown with the Comets on February 23, then they’ll head up to Belleville to face the Senators on the 24th to close out their schedule for the month.