LAVAL, QC — The Laval Rocket and Rochester Americans met up at Place Bell for the first two games of the best-of-five North Division Final on Sunday and Monday night. The back-to-back set featured two eerily similar games that the Rocket ran away with.
The North Division Final series between the Laval Rocket and Rochester Americans promised to be thrilling, fast-paced hockey, and the first two games didn’t disappoint. The Rocket won both tilts and hold a 2-0 series lead ahead of Game 3 in Rochester.
Games 1 and 2 needed to set the tone for the series. For the Rocket, they opened the series to sold-out crowds on home ice — they needed to play the strongest games of their season to shake the Americans’ confidence and head into hostile territory with the series lead. The Americans — already in hostile territory — needed to establish themselves as threats to the Rocket’s success and show them that they wouldn’t be rattled, even in a building as electric as Place Bell.
From the outset of both games, it was clear that neither of these teams was willing to go down without a fight. The fast-paced, high-intensity, full-bore hockey this series billed itself as was on full display.
The Americans came out strong Sunday night and made it clear that they wouldn’t be an easy opponent to play against. They matched the Rocket’s speed and didn’t let them dictate the pace. Laval took notes from their semifinal series against the Syracuse Crunch and laid the body early to remind the Americans of what they were up against. The sold-out crowd in Laval made their presence known — they were engaged in the game from puck drop.
Rochester set out to match the Rocket stride for stride and keep their opponents from using their best asset — their speed — to their advantage. To ensure they didn’t lose control of the game, the Americans locked down their defensive zone and kept the Rocket from using their chances as springboards for momentum. The Rocket conceded the game’s first period early on, and even though the Americans didn’t capitalize on it while they were a man-up, they took the momentum they built and carried it over to even-strength play. Their forecheck was so in sync that they broke through Laval’s defense to pepper goaltender Cayden Primeau with as many strong chances as possible. When the Rocket cleared the zone and tried to set up in front of Aaron Dell, the backcheckers swiftly nullified any of their chances and cleared the puck out of danger.
For the Rocket, opponents keeping their plays from coming to fruition is usually the kiss of death, and they unravel but not tonight. As cohesive as the Americans were, the Rocket were equally as coordinated. The Americans struggled to get solid scoring chances in the Rocket’s zone for the same reasons they kept Laval off the board. Primeau was riding the confidence of the series win against Syracuse and easily handled everything the Americans had to throw at him. All of that hard work paid off for Rochester, and they drew first blood courtesy of JJ Peterka inside the final five minutes of the first period. The Rocket responded shortly after with the first of four goals on the night from Danick Martel. The first period passed in nearly real-time; there were very few whistles, and media timeouts were few and far between.
The score was even at one apiece going into the first intermission, but the equalizing goal was the turning point in the game for the Rocket. In the second and third periods, the control of the pace and momentum of the match rested solely with Laval. They managed to find another gear out of the gate in the latter two frames and continued to add more goals to the scoreboard. The Americans pushed back and slowed the game’s speed down a little bit in an attempt to regain some of their lost footing, but the Rocket were off to the races and showed no signs of stopping. Through the last 40 minutes of play, the Rocket launched shots at the Rochester net from wherever they could. The Americans didn’t back down in response to the Rocket’s surging — their forechecking was still solid. Still, they couldn’t solve Primeau after that first goal, and their backchecking and goaltending kept the Rocket from turning a lopsided score into an all-out bloodbath.
The Rocket scored three goals in the second period — one from Cédric Paquette sandwiched by two from Martel to complete the hat trick. Following Martel’s third of the game, Dell came off the ice in favor of Michael Houser. Houser kept the Rocket at bay the best he could, but the home team seemed to score at will. Martel tallied his fourth of the night, and Nate Schnarr got in on the scoring action in the third period. The Americans refused to back down and launched everything they could at Primeau, but the young Rocket netminder was more than equal to the challenge. The Rocket ran away with the game, but the Americans were in it alongside them in every way except on the scoresheet.
Discipline became a minor issue for both teams in the second period as tensions began to heat up and tempers flared. Those tensions came to a head in the waning seconds of the third period. Rocket defenseman Mattias Norlinder took a hit to the head from Ben Holmstrom, and the Rocket responded with a maul in the corner. Norlinder skated to the bench under his own steam, and with six seconds left in the game, the Rocket had a 5-on-3 power play. Being a man up for a few seconds wasn’t going to do anything for the Rocket, but they did carry that anger into Game 2 on Monday night.
What a game!#GoRocket pic.twitter.com/gz0mmpewqU
— x – Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) May 23, 2022
On the second half of the back-to-back, the Rocket were the ones that came out of the gate and controlled play early. The entire first period, Laval was in total control of the game, and the physicality they levied against Rochester was dialed up to 11. Dell returned to the crease to battle it out against Primeau once again, but Norlinder didn’t dress for Monday’s tilt, and it seemed like the Rocket were taking out their frustrations for the hit that sidelined him on any and all Americans. Brandon Gignac opened the scoring for the home team — this time around, they never trailed the Americans. When the Rocket aren’t playing comeback hockey, they focus on the little things that make them successful. The Americans possessed the puck for a fraction of the time the Rocket did, which reflected on the shot clock in the opening frame.
The Americans entered the second period with more control of the game than the first. The ice leveled out, and Rochester clawed back into the play, but Laval still made the most of their chances. Louie Belpedio extended the lead before the halfway point, and the Americans got to work doing what disrupts the Rocket the best — stopping the flow of the game. Like in Game 1, the first period flew by; the second period slowed down thanks to Rochester’s efforts to keep the Rocket at bay. With that slower pace, the Americans were able to regain some footing. Laval still took shots from anywhere and everywhere, but Dell had support in front of him to keep the Rocket off of rebounds and send the Americans on the attack at the other end of the ice. The Americans closed the second with a power play, but the Rocket penalty kill shut it down without breaking too much of a sweat.
If the second period was slower than the first, the third period was glacial. The Americans looked much more confident in the dying moments of the second period and opening minutes of the third but slowly — and then all at once — the game came to a grinding halt. Brett Murray and Belpedio got tangled up early on and triggered a cascade of whistles and stoppages of play that undid all the inertia of the high-speed first and second periods. Between icings and goalies covering the puck, the third period became much more staccato than the first two. Add onto that the two stretches of 4-on-4 that they played, and the frame dragged on.
Nearly halfway through the period, late season addition Lucas Condotta lasered a shot past Dell and added another goal to the Rocket’s lead. Both teams were clearly frustrated with each other by then. Laval took one last penalty in the game, and the Americans opted to pull Dell in favor of an extra attacker on the power play. Mark Jankowski finally got Rochester on the board two seconds after that expired. The Americans managed to claw their way back even on the shot clock, but even with an extra attacker for two minutes, they couldn’t find two more goals despite having great chances.
Nice 😉#GoRocket pic.twitter.com/teWw2EgHsp
— x – Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) May 24, 2022
The Rocket took a 2-0 series lead at home and head to Rochester for at least one more game. The deciding factor in this series is shaping up to be goaltending — the team with the strongest brick wall wins the series. Special teams are also a deciding factor, though not the special teams you’d assume. The penalty killers on both sides are the most valuable players to their squads after two games. Power-play units aren’t scoring, and that’s got as much to do with the penalty kill as it does with the goalies they’re defending.
So far, the emotions of the game haven’t boiled over and burned either team, but keeping those in check and using them to their advantage is going to help determine which team maintains control of the game and, in turn, who has the best shot at making their efforts count for more than just moral victories.
The Rocket and Americans face off in Game 3 at Blue Cross Arena on Wednesday, May 25, at 7:05 pm EDT. If necessary, they will also be in Rochester on Friday, May 27, at 7:05 pm EDT. Catch all the action on AHLTV!
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