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Laval @ Utica recap & highlights: Connor LaCouvee carries anemic Rocket to a shootout loss

With 35 saves, the goaltender was one of the only Laval players to show up on Friday.

Club de hockey Canadien, inc.

After another thrilling comeback win in a shootout on Wednesday night against the Providence Bruins, the Laval Rocket were right back on the road for a showdown with the Utica Comets. The Rocket would be without ECHL call-up Joe Cox, who left the Bruins game with an injury, and also Karl Alzner who was still with his wife following the birth of their child.

After another strong showing during the week, Connor LaCouvee got the start against AHL veteran Michael Leighton as the Comets looked to snap an eight-game losing streak.

The Rocket found the back of the net early in the game, with their opening goal coming just three-and-a-half minutes into the opening period. It was Brett Lernout who opened the scoring in an unexpected twist, as the defender is not known to be offensively inclined. Daniel Audette continued his strong run by dishing the puck off to Lernout at the point, and the big defender rifled his shot into the far corner for his third goal of the year, and first on an actual goalie.

The Rocket immediately put themselves into penalty trouble, with Antoine Waked taking a boarding penalty. After he exited the box, he threw down in a spirited fight with Carter Bancks. Back-to-back penalties by David Sklenicka and Ryan Culkin put the Rocket at a heavy disadvantage in the second half of the first period. Cameron Darcy being called for hooking partway through the Rocket penalty kill helped alleviate some of that pressure, but the penalties and shots against became a trend in the following periods.

Thanks to Lernout’s goal and some crafty goaltending from LaCouvee, the Rocket entered the first intermission with a one-goal cushion.

The second period got underway with a relentless attack by the Comets, as they circled the Rocket zone under little duress. Then when the Rocket seemingly had an odd-man rush, it was wiped out by an Alexandre Alain slashing penalty behind the play. For the fourth time in the game the Rocket penalty-killers took to the ice, and for the fourth time they stymied the Utica man advantage, keeping their lead intact.

Even with the penalty killed, the Comets kept the pressure on Laval, forcing LaCouvee to be at the top of his game as Utica piled up nine shots while the Rocket looked for an opportunity to get any pucks on Leighton.

With 11 minutes ticked off the clock, Culkin fired the puck out of play while being pressured in the defensive zone, sending Laval out for another penalty kill. Again the cool and collected LaCouvee turned away the Utica power play, not budging even when he had a goal crease full of Comets hacking away at loose pucks.

The Rocket offence didn’t register a shot on net until the final five minutes of the period: a wrist shot from Alain that Leighton snatched out of the air with ease. Even with some offensive-zone time, the Rocket could not break down the Comets defence, and ended up defending in their own end shortly thereafter.

Despite the lack of offence, 14 saves by LaCouvee kept his team in the lead after 40 minutes.

The third period once again belonged to LaCouvee as the Comets had a sixth power play early in the period after another Culkin penalty. The penalty kill put the Comets on ice, and with a few second left actually drew a penalty of its own. The Rocket didn’t manage any dangerous offence, or even a shot on net during their power play.

The Comets finally found a goal with just over 10 minutes played in the third period, and it came in strange fashion. LaCouvee made the initial save on a Tom Pyatt shot, but the puck bounced around the boards. As LaCouvee went back to defend his goal line, Brendan Gaunce fired a shot off of the Rocket netminder and into the net to tie the game up at one goal apiece.

The Rocket did not register a shot on net until the final 90 seconds of the period, and it was their only one as they ended regulation with just 12 total shots in 60 minutes of play.

They struggled to find their groove even when they gained the Utica zone, and again relied on the steady hand of LaCouvee to deny massive chances from Tanner Kero and Gaunce. Maxim Lamarche had a breakaway chance in the dying moments, but Leighton’s pad denied the defender’s backhand shot, and for the fourth consecutive game, Laval went to a shootout.

Unfortunately, this lengthy back-and-forth battle did not follow the same template as Wednesday night’s as the Comets got goals from Lukas Jasek and Seamus Malone, while Leighton turned away everyone except Alex Belzile to seal the victory for Utica.

Laval heads off to Springfield for a Saturday night matchup with the Thunderbirds, the team sitting just one point ahead of them in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.

Three Stars

1. Lukas Jasek (Shootout winner)

2. Tanner Kero (1 Assist)

3. Brett Lernout (1 Goal)