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How the “next man up” mentality has kept the Rocket in the AHL playoff chase

In uncertain times, the Rocket are still pushing forward in their quest for their first playoff berth in team history.

Club de Hockey Canadien

The Laval Rocket have been in the American Hockey League for five seasons now and in that time they badly missed the playoffs twice. The first was in a disastrous inaugural season under Sylvain Lefebvre. The second was in the first season of Joël Bouchard’s tenure which laid the groundwork for future successes.

In the third year, the team started off poorly but put on a full-court press in the new year of 2020 to get within four points of a playoff berth before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the season entirely. That was a bitter pill to swallow for the Rocket and the coaches who were putting together some of their best efforts despite a depleted roster due to injuries and call ups. The fourth year saw everything click in another Covid-shortened season. The Rocket roughshod over the Canadian Division en route to a division title, but because of the still ongoing pandemic, they were once again denied a playoff shot.

Now we enter season five. Bouchard has departed the organization for San Diego and the Anaheim Ducks organization and in his place is new coach Jean-Francois Houle. The roster has plenty of new faces in addition to the vets who helped turn the club around in short order.

The 2021-22 Rocket are not short on talented players in terms of both prospects and veterans. The season started slowly, not badly, but not to the level expected of a team that was expected to contend for a division title once again. The emergence of Cayden Primeau allowed the team to get itself on track then, in the spirit of the previous two years, the team was hammered by Covid-19.

While they were already missing Joel Teasdale and Josh Brook due to off-season surgeries, the team then lost every single NHL contracted player except for J-S Dea to recall or Covid protocol inside the span of two-and-a-half weeks. In that same period of time, the Rocket compiled a 7-2-1 record in their last ten games played.

The strength of the Rocket has never been about having a singular standout star. They won games under Bouchard, and now Houle, by utilizing four deep lines and three pairings in equal order. The concept of “next man up” became the rallying cry for the Rocket as their team became more parts ECHL call-ups than guys who started the year in the AHL.

That next man has been Lukas Vejdemo for a few games, and then it was J-S Dea, and recently it became Brandon Gignac among others. After a long break due to Covid and the holidays, the Rocket had a trio of big games on their plate. They started strong out of the gate securing a 3-2 win over Syracuse in a game where Gignac and Dea scored some big goals, while the ECHL call-ups chipped in with multiple assists.

In their second contest, the Rocket stormed back against the Springfield Thunderbirds with the same familiar names cropping up with some timely points, but Laval also found new contributions from from Justin Ducharme and the recently PTO’d Devante Smith-Pelly as the team won in overtime. They did run out of gas a bit on Saturday, and a strong Hartford team stymied a strong effort from the Rocket.

It all stands in stark contrast to the Montreal Canadiens, where no matter which players are in the lineup (save for the nearly all AHL team that played against the Tampa Bay Lightning) the team seems to play with zero sense of urgency in most situations.

Luckily for the Rocket, players are beginning to exit Covid protocol and the team as a whole is getting healthier. That means more of their regulars should be back in short order and the Rocket can continue their march towards a hopeful playoff appearance. It likely means many of these unexpected contributors will be pushed down the lineup or back to the ECHL, but it’s important to highlight the massive work they did to keep the Rocket afloat during all of this.

There’s a lot of season left to go, but the Rocket’s determination through a brutal stretch of time has kept them in prime position to make the post-season for the first time in team history. They’ll have another big week ahead of them as they have a game in Utica and a pair of games in Belleville, all with huge standing implications for the division.