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2022 Calder Cup Playoffs

Thunderbirds Bite Back, Take Series Lead

Thunderbirds Bite Back, Take Series Lead

LAVAL, QC Wednesday night, the Calder Cup Eastern Conference Final made its way to Place Bell for the first of three games in Laval. The goaltending showdown between the Springfield Thunderbirds and Laval Rocket carried on as the Thunderbirds walked away with a decisive victory and series lead. 

FIRST PERIOD

The forecast may not have predicted it, but Laval was once again under white-out conditions as the Rocket hosted the Thunderbirds in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final. Place Bell hosted a nearly sold-out crowd for the midweek matchup between the two best teams in the east. The Thunderbirds started the game with a point to prove: that they want the Calder Cup more than the Rocket and were willing to dominate their opponents to get to it. Laval opened the scoring thanks to Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, but that is where the Rocket’s good fortune all but ended. The Thunderbirds bounced back with a strong response. They applied more pressure, choked the Rocket out of the offensive zone, and trapped them on the backcheck. That work paid dividends for them, and they found an equalizer courtesy of Nathan Todd

Springfield wasn’t happy with just tying the game, though. They spent the second half of the first period beating back the Rocket and taking complete control of the game. They dictated the pace of play and set the tone that the Rocket had to match if they wanted to stay in this thing. The Thunderbirds and the Rocket were pretty close on the shot clock in the first period, but possession and zone time gave the visitors the edge. For the most part, both sides played a tightly contested, well-matched game. A handful of penalties were assessed, but the penalty killers and especially goaltenders Cayden Primeau and Joel Hofer made short work of stifling the man advantage on either side. The match’s calm, even-keeled back-and-forth rhythm held through the first 20 minutes, with a couple of shoves and chippy hits sneaking through on both sides. 

In the back half of the first, the speed of the game ground down to a halt most notably when the arena staff pressed pause so that they could check out a pane of glass in the corner. It was about this time that tensions started to flare, and emotions moved to the forefront of the Rocket’s style of play. Nate Schnarr took a double minor with about 30 seconds left on the clock and doomed his team to start the second period on the penalty kill. 

SECOND PERIOD 

The Thunderbirds came out swinging to start the second. The Rocket were frustrated, and the T-birds used that to their advantage, forcing them to add another penalty to the scoresheet and concede an extended 5-on-3 power play. Primeau stood tall against the barrage of shots that Springfield leveled at him, and the Rocket killed both penalties. They never quite recovered from the loss of traction they suffered from going down two men to start the period. Around the five-minute mark, the Thunderbirds exerted total control of the game. The Rocket hunkered down and pushed back against their opponents, but Hofer and the defense in front of him put an abrupt end to every one of their chances. 

Halfway through the period, the tempo shifted from a deceptively calm back-and-forth to a staccato Viennese waltz. The netminders covered the puck at every opportunity, and icings became seemingly ever-present. The Rocket sought to use the change in pace to their advantage, dig in, agitate, and get under the Thunderbirds’ skin. Danick Martel the most reliable agitator for Laval set to work doing just that, but it backfired on him, and he was sent to the penalty box for two minutes on a roughing charge. Thirty seconds later, the Rocket conceded another minor penalty for delay of game and gift-wrapped a second long 5-on-3 power play for the Thunderbirds. Once again, Primeau came to the rescue, stonewalling Springfield on the two-man advantage. That luck didn’t hold — the Thunderbirds regrouped, reset, and re-established their dominance over the Rocket at the five-minute warning with goals from Hugh McGing and Will Bitten.

The T-birds held a two-goal lead as time ticked closer to the buzzer to end the period. The loud and involved Place Bell crowd was deflating, and the Rocket needed to respond. Respond they did Corey Schueneman slipped a snapshot past Hofer and gave his team new life with about a minute left to play in the sandwich stanza. The Rocket seemed to be finding some footing in this one, and the first five minutes of the third period were going to make or break their hopes to get back into it. 

THIRD PERIOD 

Okay, so they were broken in 35 seconds. Bitten scored his second goal of the evening well before an entire minute both real time and hockey time elapsed. The Thunderbirds used that to grab all of the momentum early in the final frame and tilted the ice back in their favor. Whatever energy the Rocket had left to stave off the onslaught, they needed to dig deep and bring it to the surface. 

The second period cooled down, and so did tempers but all bets were off in the third. In response to going down 4-2, the Rocket fell back on old reliable their physical game. They started laying the body to work the Thunderbirds off the puck and found themselves in a way better position to launch pucks at Hofer and pray he slips up enough to sneak one by him. They forced Springfield to take some ill-timed penalties of their own and even managed to find themselves on a 5-on-3 power play of their own. Ordinarily, that means a chance to level the ice, gain some ground, and use some inertia to pull back some control over the game on home ice; for the Rocket, it meant conditions were ripe for special teams to finally make an impact just not their special teams. Bitten earned his hats shorthanded a quarter of the way through the period. That was the final nail in the coffin. 

The pace and intensity of the game were back at the higher end of the spectrum when they were actually playing. Much like the second period, the halfway point of the third brought a slew of whistles stopping play and interrupting the flow. At the 11:55 mark, Dakota Joshua and Alex Belzile brought the tensions that permeated the game to a head with the first skirmish of the night. Both earned roughing minors two for Belzile and one for Joshua and ten-minute misconduct penalties for continuing the altercation. Lucas Condotta served one of Belzile’s minors, and Springfield ended up on the power play. Primeau and the Laval penalty killers once again stood their ground against the Springfield power play and kept them from adding insult to injury, but not for very long. 

The Rocket pulled Primeau in favor of an extra attacker with around three minutes left in the game. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Thunderbirds took full advantage of the wide-open net, and Bitten added a fourth goal to his tally. Thirty-five seconds before the Rocket could put this one behind them, Martel found himself tangled up with Tyler Tucker for one last dance before the buzzer. Both of them were assessed the following penalties:

  • Two roughing minors
  • One ten-minute misconduct for continuing the altercation

Schnarr added one last goal for the Rocket with 11 seconds left in the game, but it was far too little, far too late. The Thunderbirds went up 2-1 on the series. 

UP NEXT

The Rocket and Thunderbirds meet in Laval on Friday and Saturday for a back-to-back set. Saturday’s game could very well be an elimination game for the Rocket if they can’t find a way to solve the Hofer conundrum. 

Catch all the action on AHLTV Friday, June 10, and Saturday, June 11 at 7 pm EDT, and be sure to follow along as Field Pass Hockey brings you live coverage of the Eastern Conference Final on Twitter.

Download the Field Pass Hockey app from the iTunes or Google Play stores or follow @FieldPassHockey on Twitter for the latest news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL throughout the 2021 season!

    Deanna McFeron covers the Laval Rocket for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with her on Twitter @FPHRocket.

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