The Laval Rocket had a tough start to the season. It doesn’t take a long look in our early-season recaps through November and into December to see they sat in last place in the American Hockey League’s North Division.
Then the organization was decimated with injuries. Both the Montreal Canadiens and the Rocket had to have the minimum players on the roster with several players called up from the level below. But something strange happened: the team started playing their best hockey of the season. Since December 10, the team is 13-6-4. Since January 14 they are on a 7-1-3 run. They have turned Place Bell into a fortress, with their last regulation loss at home coming on November 23.
The crowds at Place Bell have been electric. The upper deck has been opened for most games recently, and it is showing no signs of slowing down. Their average attendance is over 7,100, their highest since the team moved.
The players are aware, and appreciate the support.
“The fans are awesome, the fans are loud,” said Rocket forward Mitchell Stephens. “The fans give us that boost when we need it, when we’re a little bit slow off the start. When we score goals it’s loud in this building. It puts the other team back on their heels.”
“The fans are amazing, it’s crazy,” said forward Brandon Gignac. “Every time we hit someone, every time we score, it’s crazy.”
“It’s so much fun to play in front of them,” said Nate Schnarr. “When we get a couple of quick goals, it’s hard for other teams to come into our building and play against that. Our fans give us so much momentum. We have to keep it going for them.”
“Even when we weren’t winning that much they were behind us,” said William Trudeau. “To hear them that loud it’s really special and it gives us energy. It’s really hard for the opponent to come into our building.”
“It’s the best building in the league. The best fans in the league,” said Rocket head coach Jean-Francois Houle. “Just the way they cheer, how they come in big numbers. It’s so much fun to play here, not just for us but for the visiting team too. I’ve been in the American Hockey League for 10 years and there’s no place like this.”
The Rocket are starting to play good hockey, regardless of the location. They can win high-scoring games, and they can win low-scoring games. They can win with speed, and they can win when it gets physical.
“Winning different ways is what happens when you learn how to win,” Houle said. “We had ups and downs at the beginning of the year and we learned a lot as a team on how to improve in different areas.”
The Rocket are have been in a kind of desperation mode to make the playoffs, and the urgency is only going to grow as the season gets into the final two months.
“It’s very similar to last year where to make the playoffs, the last month was very intense like they are now. Every game is important and I like the way we’re going into every game,” Houle said.
When Cayden Primeau was sent down by the Montreal Canadiens with Jake Allen’s return, Houle said that he was going to give Primeau a heavy workload. That became a necessity when Kevin Poulin went down with an injury. Primeau has played every game since the injury, and is 4-1-2 since coming back to Laval. He has won his last three starts and in the last two, he made 68 saves on 71 shots, good for a .958 save percentage.
“He’s working and he’s battling and that’s what he needs,” Houle said. “He’s going to keep seeing games and he’s going to play. I’m not shy about it, I’ve told the media, I’ve told him, I’ve met with him, he needs to take the ball like he did in the playoffs and that’s what he’s done the last two games and it’s consistency. He needs to be like this constantly. The Primeau we saw the last two nights, that’s what we need.”
Joël Teasdale is become one of the most important Rocket forwards this season. He has nine goals and two assists in his last eight games, and has 16 goals and seven assists in his last 21 games.
“He goes to the net. He has a fucking great shot,” said Mitchell Stephens. “He goes to the net, he gets dirty, finishes checks, he skates and he has a knack for the net. He’s playing really well right now.”
“He goes to the net,” Houle said, echoing Stephens. “Like Rafaël Harvey-Pinard does. He goes to the dangerous areas, sometimes they aren’t too pleasant to go into, and that’s why he has success right now.”
With so many players called up, Houle was asked if he’s worried Teasdale’s streak might make him the next one to leave the Rocket for the NHL.
“I hope he’s called up,” Houle said. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re here so young players rise up and if he gets called up, good for him. Next man up, the next person will come in.”
In fact, even though Houle is focused on his team, he has also looked at the success his former players like Justin Barron, Jesse Ylönen, Alex Belzile, and Harvey-Pinard are having at the next level.
“It’s rewarding for our group of coaches but also it’s an incentive for the rest of the players,” Houle said. “As a coach, it’s easy to say ‘hey, look what’s going on up there’ so then they want to work even harder to try and get up there and feel good about themselves. It’s good for everybody and we’re very pleased and happy for our players who are up there doing well and we’re going to keep the mentality of next man up and I think it’s working well for us right now.”