Less than 24 hours after the Laval Rocket put forth one of their weakest efforts of the year, they would have to take on the team they’re following behind in the standings: the Springfield Thunderbirds. They also had to do so without both of Hunter Shinkaruk and Antoine Waked, who sustained small injuries in Friday night’s game in Utica.
Michael McNiven was entrusted to start after Connor LaCouvee carried the Rocket to a shootout the previous night. The Thunderbirds countered with their backup goaltender, Alex Sakellaropoulos, with Chris Driedger getting the night off.
There was no easing into the game for either side on Saturday night. Alex Belzile nearly directed a pass home in the opening moments, while Bobby Farnham’s physical play created havoc inside the Laval defensive zone.
Xavier Ouellet took the game’s first penalty after he was caught cross-checking a Thunderbirds player on a rush. On the penalty kill, some great effort by Jake Evans negated the Springfield power play as he forced Jed Lowry into holding him back on a short-handed break. From there, the Rocket ended their own power play as Daniel Audette was forced to wrap up Farnham who had jumped on an errant pass and sped off on a breakaway of his own.
Stalwart defence and smart goaltending from McNiven kept the Thunderbirds off the board, and then former IceCap Farnham took a mindless cross-checking penalty behind the net after being hit. After McNiven stoned Jonathan Ang on a short-handed breakaway, Belzile was called for pushing the net off its moorings, and was handed a two-minute penalty for delay of game. Again the suddenly robust Laval penalty kill fended off the abbreviated man advantage, keeping the game scoreless through the opening 15 minutes.
The Rocket took back-to-back delay of game penalties with two-and-a-half minutes left to play in the opening period. With both Audette and Nikita Jevpalovs sitting, Julian Melchiori took the one-time setup and picked his corner on McNiven to give Springfield the early lead.
That was how the two sides headed into the intermission as well. Laval would have a small power play to start the second thanks to an Ang interference call.
A sleepy start hurt the Rocket at the beginning of the second period. They failed to find a goal on their short power play, and then found themselves in a two-goal hole shortly after. As the penalty to Ang expired, John-Sebastian Dea took a breakout pass from Juho Lammikko and put his shot right over McNiven’s shoulder.
The goal brought a bit of juice to the Rocket attack, and they were aided by another Springfield penalty, their fourth of the game. Laval could not find any sort of consistency, and gave up multiple short-handed rushes against, but excellent backchecking efforts prevented any further goals.
After recovering from their disastrous power-play attempt, the Rocket continued to push for a goal of their own, but tripped themselves up with Marc-Olivier Roy taking a holding penalty. Ironically, down a man is how Laval found their goal, and it turned the tide in the period permanently for the Rocket. With just over half the Roy minor killed off, Jevpalovs took a pass from Ouellet and wove his way through the Springfield defence. While off-balance, he snapped a shot by the opposing netminder to get his team on the board.
Nikita Jevpalovs goes on an adventure, and snipes his 11th goal of the year while shorthanded pic.twitter.com/Zzld3I5TUE— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 24, 2019
The Rocket kept the pressure on, and in the final seconds of the period found a more than deserved tying goal on the stick of Cale Fleury. A faceoff in the final 30 seconds led to Belzile winning a battle along the boards, and from there Fleury pinched from the point and put the feed over Sakellaropoulos to tie the game with four seconds remaining.
Cale Fleury ties it for the Rocket with just four seconds left to play in the period. pic.twitter.com/NkaxeDoqaN— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 24, 2019
After two periods of relentless back-and-forth action, combined with a hefty dose of shots on net, the third period played out a lot more like two teams trying their best to not lose in regulation. It started with a penalty on the Thunderbirds just nine seconds in, and a second man advantage with over half of the period gone, but yet again they failed to find the back of the net. When the horn sounded, the Rocket were headed to overtime for the fifth straight game.
It wasn’t a long stay in the three-on-three overtime — less than a minute, in fact — thanks to captain Ouellet. Lukas Vejdemo won the draw back and Ouellet waited patiently behind the net for his chance to break out. He then took off slowly, and upon hitting the Thunderbirds zone powered around a defender and lifted home his fifth goal of the year for a 3-2 victory.
Xavier Ouellet goes coast to coast and wins it in OT for Laval! pic.twitter.com/FSbpZjAMpb— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 24, 2019
The run of point finishes has the Rocket slowly inching their way up the standings, now six points out of a playoff spot, but running out of time to make them up.
Another three-game week awaits the Rocket as they’ll clash with Binghamton on Wednesday night, then head into the meat grinder for back-to-back games against Rochester and Toronto on Friday and Saturday.
1. Xavier Ouellet (1 Goal, 1 Assist)
2. Jean-Sebastian Dea (1 Goal, 1 Assist)
3. Julian Melchiori (1 Goal)