'We knew it would take the best two weeks of our season': The Laval Rocket head to the playoffs on a high note
With eight wins in their last nine games, the Rocket have high expectations for another playoff run.
The mantra of last year's Laval Rocket team was 'Never too high, never too low', and it took them all the way to the American Hockey League's Eastern Conference final.
After a roller coaster season that saw more ups and downs than one would think possible, the Rocket had a 4-3 lead and control of their playoff lives. Holding on for the win against a Syracuse Crunch team that was also playing for playoff positioning would see them clinch their second playoff berth.
It was a similar situation to a week earlier, against the team chasing them for that final playoff spot – the Cleveland Monsters. The Rocket blew the lead in that game, and needed to win out to put the pressure on Cleveland. With the Monsters losing against the Utica Comets, the Rocket were once again in control of their destiny.
By now you know that they held on, for their eighth win in nine games to end their season.
"We knew before the third period that it was 2-1 [for Utica] so we knew we had to stay tight and the third goal [by Syracuse] made us even more stressed," said Rocket forward Anthony Richard. "We have a young team, we were on our heels. In the playoffs, leads like that you can't lose and we managed to win because Cayden [Primeau] was great from the middle of the second period to the third... Combined I don't think we spent more than two minutes in their end."
"[The score in the Cleveland-Utica game] didn't mean anything if we didn't do our job," said Primeau.
"The last two weeks, without saying that we didn't believe, we knew it would take the two best weeks of our season and a little help after losing to Cleveland and to finish with one loss in the last two and a half weeks, it's pretty incredible what we accomplished," Richard said. "I'm so proud of the guys. We came a long way, a lot of injuries in Montreal, a lot of injuries here, it slowed our season down but to make the playoffs after so many ups and downs and inconsistencies, I'm really happy."
"We never gave up. Every time we had a setback, everyone showed up the next day ready to work," said Rocket head coach Jean-François Houle.
Last week, Primeau played three games, winning all of them. He made 41 saves in a shutout, followed by back-to-back 39 save performances. After being the backup for Game 1 of the playoffs last year, Primeau is going to be the goalie the Rocket lean on from the start this time around.
"I thought he did a great job all week," said Houle. "A lot of people put a lot of pressure on Prime but he really delivered this week and I'm proud of the young kid."
The Rocket are looking at the playoffs as an opportunity as they have both their best roster and are playing some of their best hockey as they start the playoffs in a best-of-three series against Utica on Wednesday night at Place Bell.
"We're a pretty young team, we have a lot of young defencemen back there," Houle said. "It's a learning process and I thought we were a little nervous [Friday] and it comes with being young and it's why these games are great for them. They're playing meaningful games that are so important and the intensity is high and it's physical. For them it's a great learning tool. Win or lose, those kids are going to be learning. Over the last month they've learned in meaningful games and they will in the playoffs."
Because of the format, the Rocket will start the best-of-three series at home before potentially two games in Utica to close out the series. The Rocket, who have tried making Place Bell a fortress all season, are very excited to have the opportunity to start at home.
"It's a huge advantage for us," said Houle. "We want to win in front of our fans and then we go there and have to win one. I think it's a good thing for us if we could get the win at home."
Richard saw what the Place Bell atmosphere could look like as a member of the Syracuse Crunch last year facing the Rocket in the playoffs. His performance and the crowd's impact were two of the reasons there was mutual interest when he became a free agent and signed with the Montreal Canadiens organization.
"I can't wait," Richard said. "I know it was a packed rink [Friday], we beat our attendance record and I knew that if you play in the playoffs here it's crazy and the white out is coming back so I'm really excited."
It wasn't all good news for the Rocket. Mitchell Stephens was injured in the game's dying seconds on Friday and has been ruled out for the first two rounds of the playoffs. He has been playing great hockey lately, and is one of the team's best faceoff takers. Rookie Nolan Yaremko played centre on the fourth line in Friday's game, and the team has Danick Martel, Brandon Gignac, and Jan Mysak who could step in to the lineup. All three players have been dealing with injuries but are possibilities to return for Game 1 on Wednesday.