SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Syracuse Crunch hosted the Laval Rocket for the first two games of their Calder Cup Playoffs North Division Semifinal series Friday and Saturday night. The tilts at Upstate Medical University Arena split the results in the best-of-five series to this point.
The Rocket rolled into hostile territory as playoff rookies. I’ve said it as many times as possible, but it’s worth repeating because it informs a lot about the Rocket’s approach: the Rocket are making their first postseason appearance in club history. The Crunch are playoff veterans. The last time there was a Calder Cup to play for, the Crunch were in contention. They were eliminated in the first round by the Cleveland Monsters, but they were there.
The game started strong with high energy and lots of jump on both sides. It was apparent from the first tests that goaltending would be the difference-maker for the game, if not the entire series. The Rocket opened the scoring on a power-play goal from Alex Belzile. The Crunch laid the physicality on strong while the Rocket tried to beat them with their skill. The big hits and agitation Syracuse employed through the opening minutes of the first period served its purpose. The home team took advantage of the mistakes they were forcing their opponents to make, and Remi Elie slipped a puck past Kevin Poulin and evened the score out at one. Cole Koepke registered a power-play goal in the closing minutes of the first and gave the Crunch their first lead of the game.
As the game continued, a trend started emerging from Laval. The Crunch scored their third goal in the first two minutes of the second period and extended their lead to two. It wasn’t that the Rocket weren’t playing well — they were playing good, high-intensity hockey. They just seemed willing to let the Crunch out-work them. They were playing hesitantly, timidly. Not to the point where they were outright railroaded, but enough to notice that the brash and unrelenting Rocket didn’t seem to be engaging in the game the way the Crunch were. Near the end of the period, Joël Teasdale cut into the deficit, but they gift-wrapped another shot at the man advantage for their opponent before the Rocket could find an equalizer. Gemel Smith capitalized on that golden opportunity and retook the two-goal lead for Syracuse.
In the final frame, the Rocket found their nerve and looked much more in sync with the game’s pace. They started using the body as a checking tool and playing more like themselves. They continued challenging and pushing back against the onslaught of the Crunch and looking for a solution to goaltender Max Lagace. Belzile found an answer, and the Rocket surged, looking to close the gap and force overtime. They never got the chance — Anthony Richard fought off Laval’s defense and buried the puck in the open net.
— x – Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) May 7, 2022
The Crunch took the early series lead, but the Rocket had every chance for revenge Saturday evening.
Saturday night, the Crunch came in just as hot as they left the game on Friday. The Rocket lost the hesitation that they carried through two and a half periods the game before. They stood up to the mighty Crunch and looked like they belonged there. The energy was high from the get-go once again, and this time around, the physicality was two-sided. Simon Ryfors and the home team drew first blood and set out to build on that momentum. They faced the pushback of the Rocket and tested Cayden Primeau often but couldn’t slip another one past him. Late in the first, Jesse Ylönen launched a one-timer past Lagace and knotted the game up. The one-all tie held into the intermission.
The second period slowed to what seemed like a screeching halt compared to the high-flying first. The fluidity of the first period — and Game 1, for that matter — abruptly transitioned into clunky, staccato spurts of play that sputtered to a stop after a few seconds. But the slower, more patient style both teams exhibited paid off for the both of them — the Crunch had time to set up not only their next move but also the move after that; the Rocket had a chance to breathe and find their footing again while counteracting the physical dominance of the Crunch. Belzile scored the lone goal of the period.
The third period was the exact opposite of the second. Both teams were back to the soaring, high-octane play they started with. The Rocket switched tactics and used their ability to pester and frustrate opponents into tensions boiling over. Despite Primeau standing tall in the crease and a scrum after every whistle, the Crunch rallied for a late push and tied the game up at two, courtesy of Daniel Walcott. The Rocket — not eager to go down two games on the series — found themselves with a late goal from an unlikely suspect: Brandon Gignac. Like the Rocket in Game 1, the Crunch pulled Lagace in favor of the extra attacker, but they ran out of time. The series moves to Laval for the next two games with a split result.
— x – Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) May 8, 2022
The Rocket and the Crunch have, well, let’s call it a tumultuous relationship. They don’t get along very well, and that animosity was on full display from the first whistle. The rest of the series has no chance to be anything other than a physical, hard-fought battle between three of the division’s best goaltenders and two of the most passionate teams in the league. It’s the American Hockey League rematch of last season’s Stanley Cup Final, and it continues at Place Bell in Laval on Thursday, May 12 at 7:00 pm EDT.
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