SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – The final four teams in the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs are set, and in the East, it’s the Springfield Thunderbirds and the Laval Rocket clashing in a best-of-seven for the first time this spring. Springfield is coming off of its second consecutive series sweep over the Charlotte Checkers. At the same time, the Rocket advanced courtesy of a three-game sweep of the Rochester Americans after winning Game 3 in triple overtime. Two of the newest AHL franchises meet in this clash, with the Thunderbirds debuting during the 2016-17 season and the Rocket one year later with a trip to the Calder Cup Finals on the line.
Regular Season Records:
Springfield Thunderbirds: 43-24-6-3, 95 points (2nd Atlantic)
Laval Rocket: 39-26-5-2 (3rd North)
How They Got Here:
The Thunderbirds are coming into the series on an impressive win streak dating back to the regular season. They closed out the year with a four-game win streak and built on it with six consecutive wins in the postseason with sweeps over Wilkes-Barre and Charlotte. The Thunderbirds were exempt from the first round courtesy of their second place finish in the Atlantic. They most recently dramatically downed the Checkers with a 5-1 win in Game 3, only allowing four goals in three games in that series. Springfield won a dramatic Game 2 in which they erased a 3-2 Charlotte lead with a power play marker from James Neal earned them the win with only five seconds on the clock.
The Rocket come in on the heels of a sweep of the Rochester Americans — before that, they went five games with the Syracuse Crunch. The series against Rochester was decisive for the Rocket, but Game 3 needed an exhausting string of overtime periods to reach a conclusion early in the third extra frame and send the Rocket to the Eastern Conference Final. Laval exerted total control over the Americans for the duration of the series and benefitted from phenomenal goaltending and consistent effort up and down the entire lineup. The North Division Final was a stark contrast to the tightly-contested second-round matchup against the Crunch.
Game 1: Saturday, June 4 – Laval Rocket at SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS, 7:35 PM EST
Game 2: Sunday, June 5 – Laval Rocket at SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS, 5:05 PM EST
Game 3: Wednesday, June 8 – Springfield Thunderbirds at LAVAL ROCKET, 7:00 PM EST
Game 4: Friday, June 10 – Springfield Thunderbirds at LAVAL ROCKET, 7:00 PM EST
Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, June 11 – Springfield Thunderbirds at LAVAL ROCKET, 7:00 PM EST
Game 6 (if necessary): Monday, June 13 – Laval Rocket at SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS, 7:05 PM EST
Game 7 (if necessary): Wednesday, June 15 – Laval Rocket at SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS, 7:05 PM EST
Season Series Recap:
The two teams clashed only twice during the regular season, with each team taking home a win on enemy ice. Laval earned a 4-3 win in overtime on January 14 courtesy of a goal from Jean-Sébastien Dea, while Springfield struck back on March 7, where a pair of goals from Nikita Alexandrov helped the Thunderbirds outlast the Rocket by a 5-2 final score. The game in January came when the two teams were still very much impacted by COVID-19-related recalls, with Springfield missing their starting duo of netminders at the time. The second game in the series in March features rosters more comparable to what has been on the ice this postseason and should prove to be an exciting series.
How Springfield Wins:
The Thunderbirds can win this series if they can continue playing the brand of hockey that’s gotten them through two rounds – a very hardworking and balanced group that can strike in many different ways. Springfield has gotten contributions across its lineup in many forms, most notably Alexandrov, Hugh McGing, Sam Anas, James Neal, Mackenzie MacEachern, Will Bitten, and Matthew Peca, to name a few. With clutch performances from players like Tommy Cross, Klim Kostin, and Dakota Joshua, plus the incoming assistance of Calle Rosen from St. Louis, in addition to Charlie Lindgren’s return, Springfield’s lineup has never looked so fearsome. The Thunderbirds have an excellent goaltending problem with Joel Hofer’s extended stay in the net in the Charlotte series, likely making the starter job his to lose. Having Lindgren available makes it easy to even rotate goaltenders with him for two potential back-to-back games in the schedule if needed. The Thunderbirds have proven in these playoffs that they can win games in any fashion, low scoring or high, and their incredible scoring pace in the third period should be in the back of any opponent’s mind as their success in the final frame has bailed them out when they haven’t played their best. Game 2 of the Charlotte series proved that Springfield has that clutch factor that often is the difference between winning and losing playoff games at this time of year. Simply put, the Thunderbirds can make the opposition pay in various ways, and that scoring depth will be a major factor if they are to win this series.
How Laval Wins:
If the Rocket hope to stand a fighting chance against the Thunderbirds, they have to rely on their best producers. Danick Martel found his stride against the Americans and scored all six of his goals this postseason against Aaron Dell and Michael Houser. Martel had a hat trick plus one extra in Game 1 but finding his scoring touch was far from the most important thing he brought to the table. Martel is the most reliable agitator on the Rocket roster, which paints a target on his back. Keeping the delicate balance between those two vastly different tasks is unlikely to be sustainable for Martel but agitating is his bread and butter — keeping that edge is the most impactful thing he can do for his team. Dea, Louie Belpedio, and Sami Niku are also among the team’s most impactful players. Their side will rely heavily on them to maintain their level of play.
Speaking of that edge, the Rocket seem to have carved out a power play that doesn’t suck the momentum right out of their game. Laval’s man advantage units are successful 27.6% of the time. That might not be the most impressive number — and it’s not the best in the playoffs or the conference — but it is a vast improvement from the regular season that only saw them score on 17.9% of their power-play opportunities. The aggravating style of play that characterizes Laval Rocket hockey is very effective at drawing penalties from their opponents. Keeping that momentum will be vital to success against the Thunderbirds’ power play — they’re the only team better than the Rocket a man up at 37.9%. On the flip side of that coin, the Rocket have a lethal penalty kill that has been one of their most valuable assets in the regular and postseason. They are, once again, second only to the Thunderbirds in penalty kill effectiveness. Special teams are going to be an exciting factor in this series.
No asset the Rocket have could be more valuable than their hot goalie. Cayden Primeau has been a stalwart guardian of the Rocket crease. His numbers don’t reflect just how good he’s been in his seven playoff starts — blame the Americans for running up the score with their pride on the line in Game 3. He’s going up against another brick wall in Hofer, and this series promises to be yet another goalie showdown for the Rocket. Primeau needs to rise to the occasion once again; he will be the deciding factor for his team — the Rocket rely on their goaltender as a significant part of their game plan. If Primeau loses his composure and opens the goal up even just a touch, the Rocket lose the series.
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