After a rough start to the year, the Laval Rocket were starting to find some footing with their play and looked to keep the strong efforts rolling as they squared off with the Syracuse Crunch for the first time this season.
Rem Pitlick rejoined the team after being sent down by the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, slotting in on the second line with Joël Teasdale and Brandon Gignac. In net it was Kevin Poulin getting the nod for the Rocket, and opposite of him it was Jack LaFontaine for the Crunch.
Out of the gate it was Syracuse holding the early momentum, testing Poulin from range and in close, but the veteran goaltender stood tall as he waited for his offence to get its legs going. The deep attack of the Crunch soon found a weakness in the Rocket defence as Gage Goncalves worked around Gignac in the defensive zone. Goncalves opened room for Gemel Smith to pot his 11th goal of the season.
Just over a minute later, the Crunch struck again after Poulin had made one desperation save. Felix Robert was able to wait and draw the Rocket goalie out of his net, then fed the puck to Lucas Edmonds, who slid it by a diving Poulin to double the Syracuse advantage.
Despite being down a pair of goals, the Rocket began to fight back in earnest as the period wore on, but finding a goal swas a battle. The line of Lucas Condotta, Mitchell Stephens and Gabriel Bourque had the best chances, as did a pinching Nicolas Beaudin. While they had LaFontaine scrambling, they either weren’t able to hit the yawning cage or the Rocke had their shots blocked by a crowd of Crunch defenders circling their crease.
The tide seemed to be tipping in Laval’s favour as the period came to a close, but frustration got the better of Pierrick Dubé as he fired a puck at the side of the net after the horn sounded. After getting roughed up in a large scrum for his actions, Dubé also was hit with a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. That meant Laval had to put the AHL’s worst penalty kill on the ice to start the second period.
It did a fantastic job keeping the potent Crunch attack from adding to the lead, and as the play returned to even strength the Crunch took back-to-back delay of game penalties. With a crucial power play chance the Rocket had an opportunity to jump back into the game.
Not for a lack of trying, the two man advantage, and abbreviated man advantage following that, weren’t able to get the Rocket on the board. Laval moved the puck well and put shots on net, but clanged three shots off the posts while LaFontaine gobbled up any second chances after that.
The team also got hit with more bad news as Gignac was removed from the game, leaving the Rocket without one of their key penalty-killers and a reliable top-six option as well.
Laval managed to get in its own way as Pitlick was called for tripping late in the period. Already down Gignac and now without Pitlick, the Rocket found themselves in a high-leverage situation. Again the much-maligned penalty kill unit held the fort, allowing Laval to exit the period still trailing by a pair of goals.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Rocket’s comeback attempts took a pause as John Parker-Jones was called for a defensive-zone trip, putting the Rocket back on the penalty kill with 13 minutes left to play. Against all expectations, the Rocket stifled a potent Syracuse attack, giving them just over 10 minutes to try to manufacture some sort of comeback.
Laval continued to pressure the Crunch, and Harvey-Pinard drew a penalty in the process. The Crunch, however, had different ideas as they generated multiple short-handed rushes, with one of them forcing Alex Belzile into a hooking penalty with just over four minutes left to play.
The Rocket PK stood tall once more, and as Belzile exited the box, Poulin headed for the bench to give his side the extra attacker. The effort was never in question, but LaFontaine continued to stymie the Rocket. After a timeout, Laval was able to break the shutout bid with Harvey-Pinard corralling the rebound of a Pitlick shot and rifling a backhand shot in to make it 2-1.
Rafaël Harvey-Pinard gives the Rocket a late goal with the extra attacker, but the Rocket fall 2-1 in Syracuse. pic.twitter.com/vEhuyvRrW7— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 22, 2022
That was all the Rocket were able to muster though as the Crunch were able to make one last clear in the final seconds to secure the win and send the Rocket back to Place Bell with a stinging loss.
Final Score: Syracuse 2, Laval 1
The Rocket now have three straight home games on the docket before the new year, starting with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Friday night.