After a long time away — five years to be exact — the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate was again taking the ice in the Calder Cup Playoffs. The first order of business for the Laval Rocket was a best-of-five series with the Syracuse Crunch, with the first two games taking place in Central New York.
While the Rocket added a number of prospects, including Mattias Norlinder, they kept their lineup mostly the same as they had down the stretch in the regular season. The red-hot trio of Gabriel Bourque, Nate Schnarr, and Joël Teasdale was kept together, while Brandon Gignac was put on the second line opposite Jesse Ylönen. With the first two games being back-to-back, J.-F. Houle opted for the veteran Kevin Poulin in net, with Cayden Primeau likely getting the nod on Saturday night.
The Crunch came out with an intense physicality, and the Rocket used that aggressiveness against them as they generated the best chance to start the game. Schnarr stole away on an odd-man rush, saucering a perfect pass to Bourque, but an incredible blocker save from Maxime Lagace denied Laval the game’s opening goal.
A lazy line change by the Crunch led to a too-many-men call, sending Laval to an early power play and a huge opportunity to grab control of the game early on. The team did just that as the second wave of the power play cashed in with just over a minute gone on the advantage. Danick Martel put the first shot on Lagace, and the Crunch goalie kicked a rebound right to Alex Belzile, who powered it home to open up the scoring.
LAVAL STRIKES FIRST!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) May 6, 2022
Alex Belzile cashes in on the power play and it's 1-0 Rocket! pic.twitter.com/GjLIgcLkRm
The lead for the Rocket didn’t last two full minutes as Sami Niku fired a clearing pass up the ice and right onto the stick of Remi Elie. The Crunch forward had all the time in the world to rip the tying goal by Poulin.
The new-look second line nearly restored the Rocket lead as Ylönen and Gignac each had a number of chances deep in the Crunch zone. Ylönen looked like he had plenty of space to shoot, but held the puck just a second too long, allowing Lagace to get over and deny the Finn his first AHL playoff goal.
Lucas Condotta caught Daniel Walcott up high off a faceoff, sending Syracuse to its first power play of the game and putting the Rocket special teams into a high-leverage position. The penalty-killers did an incredible job keeping the Crunch shooters quiet, but with just seconds left in Condotta’s minor, Cole Koepke was able to tip an Anthony Richard shot past Poulin.
That goal gave the Crunch a narrow lead as the sides headed to the first intermission. Right off the hop in period two, that one-goal lead quickly became two as Richard worked into the slot to fire home a Koepke rebound.
Laval was back on their heels following the third Crunch goal. While they could get the puck out of the zone, there was no meaningful attack coming from it at the end of the play. Meanwhile, Syracuse nearly made it a three-goal lead when Charles Hudon was left alone at the side of the net, but a desperation save by Poulin robbed the former Rocket star.
An interference call against Gabriel Dumont sent the Rocket back to the power play, and it looked like the Crunch might keep Laval from finding the back of the net. Then, Laval got a bit of a luck as Louie Belpedio’s shot exploded the skate blade of a Crunch defender, leaving Syracuse still short-handed even as Dumont exited the box. With one defender unable to cover the front of the net, Joël Teasdale was able to rush the crease and jam home a rebound off a Niku shot to make it a one-goal game again.
Joël Teasdale stays red hot and makes it a 3-2 game in Syracuse! pic.twitter.com/a59pgquva0— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) May 7, 2022
Tempers finally spilled over late in the period as Danick Martel caught Lagace up high after the whistle, and in the ensuing scrum the Rocket found themselves on the penalty kill. Hudon’s shot clanged the crossbar and bounced right to Gemel Smith, who easily shovelled it home to restore the two-goal Crunch lead before the period ended.
Laval was going to need a strong final 20 minutes to try to steal a win from the Crunch to start the series. While Syracuse was doing well to smother most of the Rocket attack, the top line again found a way to create something. J.-S. Dea broke in, leaving his opponent in the dust as he created a small odd-man chance. He flipped a pass across the front of goal and Belzile barreled forward, slamming home the pass — and himself — into the back of the net.
That's two goals on the night for Alex Belzile!— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) May 7, 2022
The Rocket cut the deficit to one goal early in the third period! pic.twitter.com/WdBGhnDKfx
With the game remaining primarily at five-on-five, the Rocket continued to pile up shots and chances, but Belpedio soon found himself sitting for interference, putting a dangerous Crunch power play back on the ice. Laval yielded very little to the Crunch attack, killing off Belpedio’s minor and leaving the team just over four minutes to try to find one more goal to tie the game.
Try they certainly did. The Rocket threw every shot they could on net, with some great looks for Teasdale and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, but Lagace saved everything that wasn’t instantly blocked down in front of him. As it looked like Ylönen was getting into his sweet spot, the pass to him was picked off by Richard and he threw it into the empty net to finish the hat trick and seal a Game 1 defeat for Laval.
Game 1 final score: Syracuse 5, Rocket 3
The loss stings, but across the board the Rocket were in the game every step of the way, setting the stage for an intense Game 2 on Saturday night in Syracuse.