The Laval Rocket are putting together a run that is eerily reminiscent of the run that the Montreal Canadiens went on last season.
Laval started off their playoff run by defeating a division rival in a winner-take-all game on the road, and followed it up by winning the division final in a sweep with the final game needing overtime, mirroring what the Canadiens did a year ago.
Now they take on the Springfield Thunderbirds, the affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, in the Eastern Conference final. This is the first time the Canadiens AHL affiliate is playing in an AHL Conference final since the Hamilton Bulldogs played in the 2010 and 2011 Western Conference final, losing both in seven games. The Bulldogs won the Calder Cup in 2007.
The last time a full-time Canadiens’ AHL affiliate played in the Eastern Conference final goes back to the 1999 Calder Cup playoffs, when the Fredericton Canadiens played Providence. Current Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle played on that team. The Hamilton team that played in the 2003 playoffs was a joint affiliate with the Edmonton Oilers.
There are a few familiar faces on the Springfield team. Former Rocket and Canadiens Charlie Lindgren and Matthew Peca are in Springfield. Peca plays on the team’s top line with Klim Kostin and Sam Anas. Anas leads the Thunderbirds with four goals and nine assists in six games. Lindgren has split goaltending duties with Joel Hofer. Lindgren told the media on Friday that he is not sure whether he will play Game 1. Hofer took over the starting role after Lindgren was recalled to the NHL after Jordan Binnington’s injury.
Will Bitten never officially played for the Rocket, but was about to. The Canadiens draft pick was with the team at rookie camp and pre-season before getting traded to the Minnesota Wild for defenceman Gustav Olofsson. He was traded to the St. Louis organization in December.
Bitten and Peca are both tied for second in team scoring in the playoffs with nine points in six games.
Springfield is entering this series on a run. On top of being an undefeated 6-0 in the playoffs, they ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak so they have won their last 10 games.
Unsung Heroes lead Laval
For a team that is now in the conference final, you would expect several players to have shown off their star qualities, but for Laval it really has been a team effort. Their leading scorer in the post-season is Danick Martel who has six goals and two assists. Martel started the playoffs on the fourth line.
Louie Belpedio is putting together a great playoff run. He has two goals and five assists and leads the team with a +7. He and Xavier Ouellet are playing tons of minutes, and are the team’s top pairing.
Corey Schueneman and Tobie Paquette-Bisson are not having the offensive production they did in parts of the regular season with one assist each, but they have been a rock solid third pairing.
Brandon Gignac’s speed is something to watch, and is a true game-breaking ability. He has three goals in the playoffs, and each of them was a huge goal. Gignac missed Friday’s practice as he was sick, the team said.
Peter Abbandonato has only played four playoff games, but has three assists. He has slotted into the third line, as Nate Schnarr is banged up. Schnarr missed one game, and has played on the fourth line since returning to the lineup. Abbandonato won a Memorial Cup with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in 2019 alongside current teammates Joël Teasdale and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard.
Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylönen have been relatively quiet from the team’s top line. Harvey-Pinard has no goals but five assists, while Ylönen has two goals and an assist. They have both had their chances, and you have to wonder if they start generating a bit more in this series.
With Mattias Norlinder out a few more weeks, and likely missing the entire series against Springfield, Gianni Fairbrother would be the next man up for the defence. The team added youngsters Joshua Roy and Riley Kidney to the roster as well. Kidney has been with the Black Aces, but it was Roy who was skating with the fifth line with Gignac out. Kevin Roy was the one skating on Gignac’s spot on the second line.
I wouldn’t expect the younger Roy to get into Game 1, even if Gignac is out. If the Rocket are struggling to generate offence, I don’t think Houle would hesitate putting the QMJHL’s scoring champion into a game.
All games — TV: RDS | Stream: AHLTV, RDS Direct | Radio: 91.9 Sports, TSN690 (Home only)
Game 1 - @ Springfield - Saturday, June 4 7:35pm EST
Game 2 - @ Springfield - Sunday, June 5 5:35pm EST
Game 3 - @ Laval - Wednesday, June 8 7:00pm EST
Game 4 - @ Laval - Friday, June 10 7:00pm EST
Game 5* - @ Laval - Saturday, June 11 7:00pm EST
Game 6* - @ Springfield - Monday, June 13 7:05pm EST
Game 7* - @ Springfield - Wednesday, June 15 7:05pm EST
* if necessary
I was joined by Scott Matla and we previewed the series in podcast form. Listen below, or wherever you enjoy your podcasts