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Laval vs. Utica recap & highlights: Kotkaniemi and Hudon explode offensively in Rocket win

An overtime winner by the captain put the icing on a big night for the Rocket’s offensive stars.

Club de Hockey Canadien

After what can only be described as a disastrous outing against the Belleville Senators, one in which the Laval Rocket squandered a four-goal lead in under six minutes before rolling over completely in overtime, the team shook things up once more. With Cayden Primeau just getting returned to Laval after backing up Charlie Lindgren on Tuesday night, the start went to a more senior member of the squad.

Michael McNiven that is, with the embattled Keith Kinkaid serving as the backup while Primeau was given a night to recover from the travel. It was McNiven’s first start since last spring in Laval. As he was lost in the goaltending shuffle with Primeau turning pro, it was a massive chance to prove he still belonged in the spotlight.

Missing from the lineup was Joe Cox, who suffered a serious lower-body injury and is out longer term, but also Lukas Vejdemo remained out as the team opted to not rush him, hoping avoid aggravating the issue.

The game started with a bang as the Rocket went on the power play just 1:17 into the game with Lukas Jasek heading off for hooking. The man advantage needed just 10 seconds to make the Comets pay for their penalty. Jesperi Kotkaniemi worked the puck down the wall, sliding a pass over to Xavier Ouellet, who in turn fed it to Charles Hudon. Hudon blistered his shot through Mikey DiPietro for his 22nd goal of the year, and an early Laval lead.

The lead was short-lived as Laurent Dauphin was sent to the box for a trip just over a minute after the Rocket power-play marker. While McNiven was strong through 95% of the kill, a scramble late in the power play created all kinds of havoc in front of the Rocket net. Francis Perron picked up the bouncing puck and beat McNiven to knot the game at one goal each with under five minutes played.

Things settled in from there, with McNiven and DiPietro denying potent offences on a few chances, and showing off their athleticism on multiple saves. Yet with the top line of Kotkaniemi, Hudon and Jake Evans hemming them in, the Comets took another penalty late in the period.

After Josh Brook had a pair of gaffes resulting in short-handed chances for the Comets, the top power-play unit took the ice for Laval. A patient Kotkaniemi picked out Hudon at the edge of the faceoff circle with a perfect pass, and Hudon had all day to line up his shot, and he wired it bar-down.

A nervy few moments ended the period as Cale Fleury lost his place on the ice, forcing McNiven into a big save in the final minute to preserve the Laval lead heading into intermission.

Much like the first period ended, the second started with some fantastic work from McNiven. A sloppy turnover created an odd-man situatiton with Brogan Rafferty feeding Jasek a pass, but a huge split-pad save by McNiven denied the duo a second Utica goal.

A delay of game penalty on Antoine Waked presented the Comets with their chance to tie the game on the man advantage. With 20 seconds left, Guillaume Brisebois let a shot fly from the point, and on the way to the net it glanced off Alexandre Alain’s stick. The fluttering puck floated by McNiven’s glove as he was set for the initial trajectory, and it was a tie game once more.

A Gustav Olofsson holding penalty put a very hungry Utica power play back on the ice. This time tan aggressive Rocket penalty kill put the Comets on their heels, with Matthew Peca generating some chances with his speed in the Utica end. It was Evans who broke the deadlock, calmly weaving around Comets defenders and wiring a high shot by DiPietro for a short-handed tally.

Following the trend, the lead was short-lived again, as John Stevens took advantage of a defensive lapse to beat McNiven far-side after Fleury was caught out of position. The teams headed into the second intermission with the score tied, and a massive third period looming.

Another early power play in the put Laval back on top once more, with Xavier Ouellet walking the blue line before letting his shot fly on net. DiPietro failed to smother the puck and Evans poked it home for his second goal of the night. The play also featured a third assist for Kotkaniemi.

On the ensuing faceoff, the Utica counter-attack caught Olofsson out of place, giving Reid Boucher all the space he needed to convert Carter Camper’s pass into his 25th goal of the season.

The two sides traded chances as the third wore on, but the incredible play of both McNiven and DiPietro kept the score knotted. The Rocket nearly ended things late, but Karl Alzner and a few others were stonewalled by a sprawling DiPietro. The game then transitioned to overtime, and it was not a long extra period.

With 46 seconds gone, Ouellet collected a Hudon pass along the goal line. The Rocket captain dipped his shoulder an drove to the net, creating a rebound. As he was falling, he swatted it through DiPietro’s five-hole for the game-winning goal, and his fourth point of the night.

In his first start since last April, Michael McNiven stopped 31 of 35 shots, an impressive showing for the young goalie.

Final Score: Laval 5, Utica 4 (OT)

The Rocket will hit the road on Friday, kicking off a five-game road trip against the red-hot Senators.