Despite a lopsided score in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final, the Laval Rocket are a game away from potentially evening up the series against the Springfield Thunderbirds.
The expression ‘what could go wrong did go wrong’ is more or less apt for the loss on Wednesday night at another sold-out Place Bell. That isn’t to say the Rocket’s issues weren’t all of their own doing, as there are a lot of aspects to clean up.
I noted the trouble that Springfield was causing in the Laval defensive zone in the cycle game, and it was not something that was lost on Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle.
“They played a heavy game, they were heavy in our zone and our smaller-stature players didn’t fare too well against them tonight,” he said. “We’re going to have to play with a lot more grit if we’re going to win the series.
“We lost a lot of 50/50 battles in our zone, they used the cycle well, played a lot behind our net and we have to stop their cycle and we have to win more battles to do that.”
The special teams have been two extremes for the Rocket. The penalty kill was eight-for-eight on Wednesday night, and is a perfect 15-for-15 in the three games of the series so far. Obviously that is going well.
On the flip side, the power play is zero-for-eight. This included a chance to give them insurance in Game 1 before the Thunderbirds tied the game late, and several chances to change the momentum in Game 3. It is now becoming something that has to be addressed.
“The penalty kill was excellent and should have generated some momentum,” said Houle. “It had the opposite effect with some guys who were on the bench a bit too long.”
So, what can the Rocket do to improve the power play?
Jesse Ylönen didn’t have the best game, and it was tough for him to sit on the bench for so long because of the team’s penalty trouble. Over the last few weeks, he has been one of the team’s most used forwards. Still, he was far from the only issue on the power play. Having several options to attack is the key to a good power play, and it seems like Laval is having trouble finding the right one at the right time. Ultimately, they need to figure out what isn’t working and fix it so that they can take advantage of their opportunities. Another option could be to swap the quarterback on the first unit, as Louie Belpedio and Sami Niku are both reliable and dynamic choices for a different look. Repeating the same thing and expecting different results is not wise. Of course, having the QMJHL’s leading scorer sitting on the bench makes things interesting. You want to ease him into professional hockey, but using his skill with the time and space afforded to you on the power play seems like an answer that’s too obvious not to try.
Speaking of Joshua Roy, it was a tough game for him to make his debut. Not only was the physicality ramped up to 10, but the barrage of penalties the team had to deal with meant that he didn’t get to play very often.
If it was tough for players like Jean-Sébastien Dea and Ylönen, for a rookie in his first professional game, it had to be just as bad.
Roy did show some flashes of the skill that makes him a top prospect for the Montreal Canadiens. A toe-drag on a two-on-one in the second period showed patience and confidence, though his shot was ultimately saved by Joel Hofer. What was notable wasn’t only the ability to do that, but the conviction to try it.
Joshua Roy came that close to his first pro goal in his first game pic.twitter.com/YXKuPDAO7h— Matt Drake (@DrakeMT) June 9, 2022
“I saw the guy lie down, so I toe-dragged,” Roy said. “I tried to lift it over his blocker, but I missed my shot.”
“He played well, he had a couple of scoring chances,” said Houle. “He didn’t get into trouble, he kept it simple. He didn’t look out of place.”
Late in the game, Roy was hit from behind by Dakota Joshua. Alex Belzile was quick to react and the two had a short fight before having their nights cut short with dual 10-minute misconducts.
“He’s up from Junior, he’s a great kid, he’s full of skill. We have to make him comfortable around here. They’re a big team, they’re really physical,” said Belzile. “When one of your brothers gets hit from behind, I don’t know if they called a penalty. For me, according to my eyes, it was an average hit I would say politely. It was my first instinct to try and do something. I didn’t overthink it, I just reacted.”
After a day off on Thursday, the two teams will be back in action on Friday night for Game 4, with Game 5 coming 24 hours later. Both games are in Laval before the series is scheduled to shift back to Springfield, if necessary.