It was not the easiest of years for rookie head coach Joël Bouchard and his Laval Rocket. Injuries, recalls, and waiver claims decimated what looked like a promising roster at the start of the season. Bouchard and his band of weary men soldiered on, however, learning lessons, taking their lumps as they went, and finding positives where they could.
Against the Syracuse Crunch on Friday night, the Rocket learned one more harsh lesson as their opponent’s high-powered attack picked apart the depleted Laval side. Connor LaCouvee was chased early in the game, and Michael McNiven did the best he could in relief.
McNiven started the final game of the year on Saturday as the Rocket rolled into Binghamton. Bouchard opted to roll with 11 forwards and seven defenders, giving Karl Alzner the night off so Maxim Lamarche and Ryan Culkin could draw into the lineup.
The Devils were the first to really threaten offensively shortly after the midway point of the period. Nathan Bastian chipped a puck by a Rocket defender and broke in on an odd-man rush. McNiven played it perfectly, taking away what looked like a sure goal for John Quenneville, and kept the game scoreless.
Binghamton capitalized on a Rocket miscue late in the period, when a mishandled puck fell to Joey Anderson, who triggered a short odd-man rush for Quenneville and Blake Pietila. The latter finished over the shoulder of a sliding McNiven, who was left out to dry by his defender’s turnover in front.
The goaltender was tested a few more times in front, but held the fort into the first intermission, with Laval trailing by one goal.
The second period brought much better tidings for the Rocket. Just over four-and-a-half minutes into the frame, they found their tying goal. Daniel Audette strode down the wing and got a clean shot off on Cam Johnson, who dropped the rebound at his feet. Michael Pezzetta drove to the net and got his stick on the loose puck, poking it by the Devils’ netminder to level the score.
Back-to-back penalties from Eric Gryba and Alex Belzile switched the play to four-on-four, but neither side was able to capitalize on the extra ice available to them.
An interference call on Bastian gave the Rocket a man advantage late in the period, and they did make the most of the chance to take the lead. Josh Brook rifled a shot off the post but not in the net, then with the puck back in his possession he teed up Xavier Ouellet for a bomb from the point for his first professional point.
Things began to unravel from there for Laval. David Sklenicka took a seat for holding, and the Devils immediately converted through Quenneville to tie the game. Then with 11 seconds remaining, Jeremy Groleau cut through the Rocket defence and lifted home a backhand shot to send Laval into the intermission trailing once again.
Laval had difficulty finding any sort of breakthrough in the final period. With just over a minute remaining, it seemed that Laval was headed for a quiet end to their season quietly, as their thinned lineup struggled to get any offence going.
Then Nikita Jevpalovs put the team on his back, and sent the Rocket flying rather than crashing to the ground to end the year. An errant puck found its way into the right faceoff circle, and the Latvian winger was all over it. He picked the puck up and wired an absolute laser over Johnson to tie the game with just 50 seconds left to play.
"More hockey!" - Nikita Jevpalovs, probably. This game is going to overtime unless someone scores in the next 30 seconds. pic.twitter.com/oJBfRAtn8j— Sarah Kossits (@skossits) April 14, 2019
In overtime, it was Jevpalovs who grabbed the spotlight once again for the Rocket. After breaking free from everyone on the ice and charging in on Johnson with speed, he then pulled out the sort of thing you only see in video games. He pulled the puck between his legs, and roofed a ridiculous trick shot into the net to steal the win for his team.
Have I ever mentioned that Nikita Jevpalovs has hands? Take a look at his overtime game-winner!!! pic.twitter.com/tcCXJH7u2d— Sarah Kossits (@skossits) April 14, 2019
The game as a whole was a microcosm for the Rocket’s season, with stunning highs, and frustrating lows, dashed with glimpses of how good this team and season could have been. Jevpalovs capping the year off with flair is a feel-good moment for a Rocket team that has done nothing but battle against injuries and harsh competition.
The season record finishes at 30-34-12, but the signs of improvement are unmistakable under Bouchard’s watchful eye, and there is an entire platoon of reinforcements on the way. The best is yet to come for the Laval Rocket.
1. Nikita Jevpalovs (2 Goals)
2. Jeremy Groleau (1 Goal)
3. Blake Pietila (1 Goal, 1 Assist)