It’s been a year of firsts for the Laval Rocket. First ever playoff berth. First ever playoff game at Place Bell. First playoff win in franchise history, and first series win for a Montreal Canadiens AHL affiliate since 2011. With a series win over the Syracuse Crunch in their back pocket, the Rocket are poised to continue their incredible season in the North Division Final.
Against the Crunch, the Rocket had a very simple objective: stay out of the box and don’t take the lazy way out with the puck. Even though they did well in both of those respects, it took a last-minute goal and overtime winner in Game 5 to advance. Now in front of them stands an even tougher challenge.
The Rochester Americans stunned the Belleville Senators in the play-in round after squeaking into the playoffs on the last day of the season. Thanks to a double-overtime winner, they earned the chance to play the North Division champs, the Utica Comets. Much like for the Rocket against Syracuse, there wasn’t any quit for the Americans, and a three-goal third period saw them upset the Comets and set up a best-of-five series with Laval.
The regular-season matchup between the two sides was equally split, with the Rocket going 4-2-2 against the Americans. The Rocket power play clicked along at 32.0% while the Rochester man advantage clocked in at just 18.5%, Laval also held an edge in total goals, 36 to 27.
Among the four goalies who played in the season series, none stood out in impressive fashion; Cayden Primeau had the best save percentage at .904. Rochester ended the year on a skid, barely sneaking into the playoffs, while the Rocket somewhat comfortably secured the third seed.
The Calder Cup Playoffs have been an entirely different beast for both sides. Ahead of the series, Rochester has three of the top four scoring forwards in the playoffs, including league leader Arttu Ruotsalainen, who has 11 points (8G, 3A) in seven games played. He’s followed up by JJ Peterka (4G, 5A) and Peyton Krebs (9A), all leading a very strong Rochester offensive attack.
A big part of that is their power play, which is clicking in at 33.3%, making it a huge focus for the Rocket in the upcoming series. Laval’s penalty kill put together an 80.0% showing against Syracuse, and they’ll need to at least hold to that, or stay out of the box against a threatening group. The Rocket power play, despite some struggles, still ranked fifth among the playoff teams, and they’ll need to keep cashing in on those chances to give themselves some breathing room in close games.
How can the Rocket manage that? The biggest thing that Laval needs right now is their top line to find its offensive game. Jean-Sébastien Dea, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, and Jesse Ylönen have played well — extremely well in terms of chances — but the goals haven’t flowed like they did during the regular season. Luckily for the Rocket, the Amerks’ starting goaltender, Aaron Dell, has been the opposite of Primeau so far.
It’s not just the top line however. While the Rocket received plenty of timely scoring from played like Gabriel Bourque and Cédric Paquette, not relying on last-minute goals will yield better results. Across the board, the Rocket offence is going to need to up its game, and the Amerks present that opportunity.
After a tight-checking, defensively stressful affair against the Crunch, the Rocket are going to have to prepare for a much more up-tempo series. The regular season showed that Laval knows how to handle Rochester’s attack, at least better than the Senators and Comets did, but those games can never fully predict the playoffs.
There’s also the benefit of home ice for Laval, as they can advance by just winning the games in front of their own fans. Both Place Bell and Blue Cross Arena have been sold out and rocking throughout the playoffs, and silencing a raucous home crowd would be a big factor in Game 3, and potentially Game 4.
It’s going to be a slugfest of a series. Both teams have pulled off gutsy wins, suffered hard losses, and there’s a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals also on the line. Rocket head coach J.-F. Houle will need to have the Rocket ready come Sunday, and after making adjustments to many things on the fly during the season, this is just another test for the rookie head coach to sort out.
Game 1 is set for tonight at Place Bell.