It’s been nearly a full month since the Laval Rocket last saw the Cleveland Monsters. In their earlier two-game set, the Monsters swept both games, part of a three-game skid to start the year for Laval. Since that rocky start, the Rocket have put together a strong showing, riding a four-game win streak into Friday’s match, and held the AHL’s top-rated penalty kill that went nearly a full month without allowing a goal against.
Missing from the Rocket lineup last night was Ryan Poehling, who has been recalled to the NHL. His absence made room for Kevin Lynch, who drew back in after a minor injury layoff. In net it was a duel of young prospect netminders with Elvis Merzlikins starting for Cleveland, and Cayden Primeau manning the crease for Laval.
Much like their season-opening affairs the first period in Cleveland was marked by solid goaltending and limited scoring chances for both sides. The biggest chance in the opening half of the period came when Lukas Vejdemo broke free of his defender, setting in alone on a breakaway. Vejdemo tried a subtle move, but a quick and emphatic glove save by Merzlikins denied the Swedish forward a goal.
The Monsters benefited from the first power play of the game with Josh Brook being sent off for interference. Primeau and the continually aggressive penalty-killers kept the Monsters from opening the scoring, and even generated a three-on-one chance of their own at the end of Cleveland’s man advantage.
The strong play of Primeau and Merzlikins was the only noteworthy element of the opening 20 minutes, and the two sides headed into the first intermission scoreless.
The second period got off to a poor start for the Rocket, with Xavier Ouellet being sent off for tripping Kevin Stenlund just 20 seconds in. Despite the man advantage, the Monsters managed to compile zero shots on net as the ferocious Rocket penalty kill continued its dominance.
Shortly after the penalty expired, the Rocket jumped into the lead thanks to a bit of luck in the offensive zone. Vejdemo flicked a backhand into the slot for Alexandre Alain, and even with it partially knocked down, Alain had no trouble lifting his backhand chance by Merzlikins to make it a 1-0 contest.
Lukas Vejdemo with the pass, and Alexandre Alain flicks the backhand shot home for his third goal of the year.— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 9, 2019
1-0 Rocket. pic.twitter.com/fGDkPdqKL6
The Rocket continued to pile on pressure, with a two-on-one between Matthew Peca and Jake Evans turning into a power play when Andrew Peeke tripped up Peca as he cut through the middle. The power play for Laval was one to forget as they not only gave up a clean breakaway to Nathan Gerbe, but a two-on-one rush that forced Primeau to snap up the shot with his glove.
The Monsters used the failed power play to crank up the pressure on the Rocket, and Laval struggled to keep up for several minutes. Once the Rocket did get their legs back, their prime scoring chances were denied twice by lunging pad saves by Merzlikins in close.
Cleveland finally solved Primeau late in the period. Calvin Thurkauf set up Paul Bittner, who blasted his shot right through the Rocket goalie, tying the game.
Laval’s late-period woes threatened a good result again, as Joe Cox took a late penalty for holding the stick while in front of Cleveland’s net. The minor penalty carried over to the start the third period.
To the surprise of no one, the Rocket fended off the remainder of the Cleveland man advantage. Once back to even strength, the visitors immediately began pushing for a second goal to break the tie game. Joe Cox teed up a huge one-timer for Xavier Ouellet, and a split save by Merzlikins denied him. The goalie appeared to be hampered by something on the save, and it turned out that Alain had swung and hit his heel, giving him a bit of a stinger, which he quickly recovered from.
Alain continued to make a nusiance of himself in the Cleveland zone. Any shot getting through to Merzlikins also brought the sophomore forward to the crease poking away until the whistle forced him to stop. This drew the ire of the Monsters’ tough guy, Justin Scott, who grabbed Alain and dragged him by his neck away from the crease.
A bench minor for too many men on the ice sent Laval to their second power play of the game, with a huge chance to take the lead back midway through the third period. The Monsters penalty kill was every bit as stingy as the Rocket’s, with Charles Hudon getting the only clean look that Merzlikins swallowed up easily.
The Rocket did manage to break the tie with Paul Bittner just exiting the box. Brook jumped on a huge rebound in the offensive zone and floated his shot past Merzlikins to put Laval back on top, 2-1.
Josh Brook gives the Rocket the lead with his second of the year!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) November 9, 2019
He jumps on a rebound by Elvis Merzlikins and puts Laval ahead. pic.twitter.com/eMgeALxSRo
While Laval was in the driver’s seat on the shot clock, the Monsters remained dangerous as the minutes ticked away. A seemingly innocent shot made it through Primeau, but the rookie miraculously swept the loose puck off the goal line and out of danger.
The physicality cranked up as the final moments approached, boiling over with Ouellet burying a Monsters forward in front of the net, and then Alex Belzile slashing another opponent after the whistle to give Cleveland one more crack at tying the game with a six-on-four power play. A critical shot block by Karl Alzner helped to get the puck out, and secured a hard-fought two points for Laval while also snapping a five-game winning streak for Cleveland.
The Rocket will put their own five-game streak on the line later today when they square off with Cleveland in a rematch, Charlie Lindgren is the expected starter for the Rocket.
1. Josh Brook (Game-Winning Goal)
2. Alexandre Alain (1 Assist)
3. Paul Bittner (1 Goal)