If things were going tough for the Laval Rocket to start the month of December, they only got tougher as the weeks wore on. The team limped into Utica on Friday night heavy with the news that Alex Belzile was out for six months, and Charles Hudon remained in Montreal nursing a lower-body injury. Thrown in were the recalls of Lukas Vejdemo and Ryan Poehling to further complicate things.
Joël Bouchard was playing cards with a bunch of off-suit fives and sixes and doing the best that he could to put forth a strong hand. Rejoining the team was former St. John’s IceCaps and first-year Rocket forward Yannick Veilleux, pushing the number of tryout and ECHL call-ups even higher. Making matters worse, the Comets were bolstered by the return of Sven Baertschi after he cleared waivers earlier in the week, and at a point-per-game pace he was a major threat.
Cayden Primeau got the start for Bouchard, and opposite him was Zane McIntyre, the goalie that a healthy Rocket club hung six goals on in a previous meeting.
Injuries or not, the Rocket were in early control as soon as the puck dropped, registering the first five shots of the game. Maxim Lamarche had a chance to open the scoring on a great cross-crease feed from Veilleux, but a lunging pad save by McIntyre denied him. Even when the Comets generated zone time, they were hard-pressed to get pucks in on Primeau, and the one shot that did get through was fended off easily.
The Rocket continued to generate dangerous chances courtesy of Veilleux as he teed up a great chance for Nikita Jevpalovs in the slot that trickled wide and away from another Rocket stick. Joe Cox drew a tripping call, allowing Laval a chance to get on the scoreboard with their strong start. The power play itself did not create a goal, but in the moments after it the Rocket finally broke through.
Otto Leskinen spun off the wall, and with his head up picked out Alexandre Alain at the back post, putting a pass right on his stick through the defence. Alain slammed the chance home, putting Laval up by a goal late in the first period.
Great vision by Otto Leskinen to find Alexandre Alain at the back post for Alain's 7th of the year. pic.twitter.com/LK6WCCGqCY— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 21, 2019
The Rocket fought off a dangerous looking man advantage by Utica right afterward, and then had to kill another one off with under 90 seconds left to play thanks to Evan McEneny being sent to the box for holding, but as the horn went the Rocket held their one-goal lead.
Michael McCarron powered into the offensive zone minutes into the second period, leaving the puck off for Alain whose big shot created a rebound, but the big forward couldn’t shovel it by McIntyre. McCarron did get his chance to make up for his lack of finish, collecting a Ralph Cuddemi rebound, and dishing it to a wide-open Veilleux, who roofed his shot to put Laval up two goals.
Welcome back Yannick Veilleux!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 21, 2019
He scores his first of the year off a feed from Michael McCarron. pic.twitter.com/qyL6rQctQY
The two-goal lead lasted 48 seconds as the Comets came roaring right back, with their star rookie Brogan Rafferty right at the middle of it all. Rafferty drove deep into the Rocket end, and Kole Lind followed his path, losing his defender and being able to direct Rafferty’s pass home to cut Laval’s lead in half.
The goal did little to stymie the Rocket, as they continued to enjoy long shifts working in the Utica zone. McCarron especially looked strong as he battled behind the net to keep puck control and generate chances.
It only took one small error for the game to end up tied, as Lamarche lost his positioning and left Jevpalovs out to dry in front of Primeau while Justin Bailey calmly fired home his 10th goal of the year.
The Rocket were given a chance to answer right after as Stefan LeBlanc was sent to the box for holding, putting Laval on their second power play of the night. It generated little, and the Rocket ended the period taking back-to-back penalties, putting them down two skaters in the final two minutes.
On the three-on-five penalty kill, Primeau was the star, flicking out the pads to take away tap-in chances, and flourishing the glove after a great save in close. Thanks to the rookie netminder, the Rocket managed to escape the period still tied.
Ouellet exited the box to start the third, but it took all of 14 seconds for Rafferty to find some free space and blast a shot into the top corner to put Utica on top to start the third period.
Cox instantly put Laval back on the defensive once again. The penalty-killers fought off the attack, and thanks to simultaneous penalties by Stefan LeBlanc and Dylan Blujus, they had a five-on-three power play of their own.
The two-man advantage was exactly what was needed. Josh Brook worked from the blue line, and when he uncorked his shot, McCarron was in the right spot to deflect it by McIntyre to tie the game at three goals apiece.
Michael McCarron's fifth of the year comes on a deflected Josh Brook shot.— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 21, 2019
Laval and Utica are tied 3-3! pic.twitter.com/8tmOdbbnfE
After Primeau made a sprawling save, someone from Utica poked a bit too much at Primeau and created a massive scrum. In said scrum McCarron speared someone in the official’s line of sight, and he was given five and a game, but not before swinging his stick close to the officials as he was escorted off the ice.
On the ensuing penalty kill, the Rocket fought valiantly, but a second call to Antoine Waked made it a three-on-five once more, and there was nothing Primeau could do on Baertschi’s uncontested shot, putting the Rocket down a goal.
On the continued power play, Utica added another goal through Nikolay Goldobin, pushing their advantage to two goals and all but sealing the game.
Final Score: Utica 5 Laval 3
It’s a long break for the Rocket as the Christmas holiday carries through the next week. The team will have seven days before their next game, and more importantly a chance to nurse their walking wounded a bit before they play again.