LAVAL, QC – The Laval Rocket took on the Syracuse Crunch in a three-game set spanning Wednesday to Saturday. While the Rocket walked away with victories in all three tilts, it’s less about the wins and more about how they earned them and what their success against the Crunch says about their season as a whole.
THE STORY SO FAR
The Rocket had a spotty record going into the first game against the Crunch, winning and losing without much predictability. Facing off against the Crunch for three in a row, the Rocket needed to bounce back from a gnarly defeat at the hands of the Belleville Senators. That last thrashing highlighted some of the issues that have plagued the Rocket all year – spotty team cohesion, unpredictable and exhausted goaltending, an inconsistent power play, and the constant depletion of their roster thanks to injuries in the Montreal Canadiens lineup forcing the Rocket to tap into the Trois-Rivieres Lions of the ECHL for replacements.
Actually, the most consistent thing about the Rocket all season has been their inconsistency. From one game to the next, Laval has the uncanny ability to look like two entirely different squads, despite icing the same lineup or facing the same team. They’ve been playing with a whole slew of ECHL reserves for the better part of two months now, while the Canadiens trudge through their season and plug holes left by injuries to roster mainstays. The mind-boggling inconsistencies on a game-by-game basis can’t be explained by having new faces in the room – they’re more than used to the bulk of the Lions donning Rocket sweaters and lacing up alongside them at this point.
The Rocket have had flashes of brilliance against opponents this year – they’ve handily beat opponents by wide margins and played outstanding, unpredictable games against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference that were only decided in overtime. But they’ve also turned their own fortunes around and struggled to find footing against teams that aren’t having much success on the season – the Islanders, the Stars, and the Senators, most notably. Injuries to the roster and missing personnel aside, the game plan from game to game hasn’t shown much consistency, either.
The Rocket aren’t a very skill-oriented team. They’re a bruising, physical, wear you down and capitalize on your mistakes kind of team. That’s Rocket hockey – lay the body and frustrate opponents into letting their emotions boil over, then launch a flurry of pucks at their goalies and hope one gets by while the defense is distracted by Laval pests. It’s an old-school style of hockey, but that’s where the Rocket find their success. Granted, there are brilliant playmakers and clutch goal scorers on the team. You wouldn’t survive in the world of modern professional hockey without players like Jean-Sébastien Dea, Jesse Ylönen, or Kevin Roy. Laval’s play has erred on the side of disruption and frustration in victories. When that’s not enough, it reflects on the scoreboard.
At the time of writing, the Rocket are fourth in the North Division and 12th in the league. They’ve got a winning record through 36 games and have managed to stay afloat even as they’ve struggled. The ship hasn’t capsized yet. They’re not leading the league in goals for, but the depth scoring and production from the blueline contribute to wins. When it’s clicking, this Laval squad has a chemistry that just makes hockey look easy. They know where to be to finish plays from linemates, defensemen don’t get caught out of position in front of their goalies or holding the zone, entries and exits are as smooth as butter, and goalies get the support they need to do their jobs without overexerting themselves. When the team plays as a unit, they see success on special teams and don’t spend nearly as much time in the penalty box.
Speaking of special teams, Laval’s penalty kill is excellent, working at 82 percent. The penalty killers have allowed 24 power-play goals against and recorded seven shorthanded goals on the season. Those aren’t the best numbers in the league, but they’re excellent for a team that takes whatever opportunities they can to build momentum in-game. Surprisingly, the Rocket are the least penalized team in the American Hockey League, only being shorthanded 133 times. That’s not to say that the Rocket are the most disciplined team in the league. In fact, the Rocket probably should be called on way more infractions, but there are a lot of games they play where officials let play continue as emotions and tempers rise on both sides.
Some of the Lions on loan to the Rocket have made an impact for however long they’re with the club. Kevin Poulin has been stellar in goal while Cayden Primeau and Michael McNiven were up with the Habs. Poulin will likely stick around for a bit longer to share the net with Primeau – McNiven is currently on the injured reserve list with the big club. Cam Hillis returned to the Rocket to replace an injured Lukas Vejdemo and has notched six points (4 G – 2 A). Peter Abbandonato is another Lion who has made a case for himself at the AHL level. Abbandonato has been with the Rocket for 16 games this season and has anchored the second line to the tune of 11 points in that time.
All season, the Lions that have dotted the Rocket roster might be impressive while they’re in Rocket colors but recalls and reassignments are significant in the inconsistencies plaguing Laval. Both of their goaltenders and four of their most reliable skaters – three forwards and a defenseman – have either been recalled to Montreal on what appears to be a semi-permanent basis or have made a couple of trips between the two clubs thanks to injury. Michael Pezzetta and Ryan Poehling were recalled to the Habs in November, while Laurent Dauphin joined the big club in December. Corey Schueneman has made the jump twice now to fill in for injuries to Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot.
Four players don’t seem like much, but before his recall, Dauphin was Laval’s best scorer, Poehling was putting his game together and anchoring the centerline with a lot of success, and Pezzetta’s grinding style has always been instrumental in the Rocket executing their game plan to beat their opponents into giving up goals. Schueneman is the Rocket’s most reliable defender – he’s a confident skater, strong on the puck and in the corners, and reads the play very quickly. The number of players absent from the lineup isn’t the issue here. It’s the players that are missing that are the problem.
Injuries to Rocket players are also playing a factor this year. Thanks to a long-term injury, Josh Brook played his first game of the season on Saturday against the Crunch. Dea missed two games with an injury, McNiven can’t return because of injury, and Vejdemo, Alex Belzile, Gianni Fairbrother, and Brandon Gignac are all injured. Their replacements are serviceable to great, but their absences are significant hindrances to creating or capitalizing on chances. Even though the players that have stepped up to fill their spots have held the line and contributed positively, these are all players that the Rocket bench bosses rely heavily on and trust to get the job done.
Even though their penalty kill is stellar, the Rocket struggle on the power play. They rank 24th in the AHL for power-play effectiveness (17.8 percent) and are 29th in power-play opportunities. They’re not on the power play very often, and when they are, the power play isn’t successful. They give up shorthanded chances and, at least according to the eye test, don’t spend much time creating credible threats in the offensive zone. It kills their momentum or deflates the team entirely. The man-advantage is probably not the reason that the Rocket struggle to win close, evenly matched games but in games where a momentum shift can turn the tilt of the ice in favor of one team or another? The Rocket failing to convert power plays into goals crushes their chances at swinging that favor their way.
“Teamwork makes the dream work” might be a cliché, but a cliché doesn’t mean something is untrue. Teamwork, team play, cohesion – call it whatever you want. The Rocket have a spotty track record when it comes to playing as a cohesive unit. They either play like they’ve played together since peewee, or they play the disjointed hockey one might expect from a team that has never played together. In games where they play like they were introduced to one another for the first time in the tunnel before the first period, their lack of chemistry is their undoing.
The cohesion – or more often, lack of cohesion – has been a major cause of Laval’s failures this year. Passes get lobbed to nowhere, there’s no control through the neutral zone, and defensive zone turnovers and penalties become more frequent. Plays go unfinished or get negated before they even start. Goalies get no support in front of their crease. Opponents force them to make one mistake, and then the rest of the game is spent trying not to unravel to varying degrees of success.
The other glaring issue that arises from the Rocket lacking chemistry is that goalies aren’t insulated on weak performances. Poulin has been carrying the brunt of the starts. He’s overworked and exhausted, but the team in front of him tends to fall apart and leave him without goal support or defense. Some of the biggest disappointments this season have come from games where the goalie hasn’t been up to standing on his head, but the guys in front of him can’t put a full-team effort together and tighten up their game to put up a win.
The three games against the Syracuse Crunch on Wednesday, February 9, Friday, February 11, and Saturday, February 12 were a complete 180-degree change from the issues that have cropped up in Rocket games throughout the season. They came into the game on Wednesday off a 6-1 loss to Belleville, where every single one of their shortcomings dropped by to say hello. The Rocket scored goals, played like one cohesive unit, defended well, and got phenomenal goaltending from Poulin. Dea returned to the lineup and scored the game-winner in both games of the back-to-back. They scored shorthanded twice and even netted a power-play goal. They combined their skilled players with their brutal pace and physical dominance and walked away with three wins in three games.
Hillis had a multi-point night, Abbandonato and Louie Belpedio showed off their playmaking skills, the Rocket were easily the most disciplined team on the ice, and the Crunch had to work overtime to get any looks in front of the crease. Laval scored 13 goals over those three games, while Syracuse was held to four. The Crunch sit at the bottom of the division, but the Rocket ran roughshod over them. The closest game was Friday, a 2-1 OT win for the Rocket that Laval took control of in the second period. The Crunch controlled play for most of the game on Saturday, but Poulin expertly denied all but one shot in a 5-1 defeat.
They have the weapons and – most importantly – the ability to counteract all the inconsistencies in their game, should they choose to use them. If the Rocket want to see the postseason for the first time in their young existence, they need to maintain that level of control, even against tougher, more successful competition.
ON THE HORIZON
The Rocket will need to build off the success from last week if they want to hold onto their winning streak. They were originally scheduled to face off against the Belleville Senators on Wednesday, February 16, at CAA Arena. As of this time, no rescheduled date has been announced.
The last meeting between the two went off the rails for Laval. They showed that they could put everything together and string wins and confidence together against Syracuse. Primeau has returned to the Rocket roster and can start helping to relieve the stress between the pipes, but the Rocket lost a keystone in the foundation of the team’s makeup: Brandon Baddock was traded to the Minnesota Wild for Andrew Hammond. Hammond is still with Montreal to ease Samuel Montembeault’s workload.
The Rocket are all over the map this year. If they can carry the momentum from the wins against the Crunch and the energy boost from having players start to return to the lineup into the game against the Senators, they could get the ball rolling and hold onto their position in the standings – maybe even improve it.
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