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Too Little, Too Late: Rocket Fall Twice in Weekend Back-To-Back

LAVAL, QC — The Laval Rocket played a back-to-back weekend set in Central New York — Saturday in Syracuse and Sunday in Utica. They lost both games and will return home having dropped their last four.

SATURDAY — Syracuse Crunch

Cole Caufield and Mathias Norlinder made their season debuts with the Rocket after starting the year off on the Montreal Canadiens roster. Michael Pezzetta and Alex Belzile were recalled to the National Hockey League by the Habs, the first-ever recall for Pezzetta. Cayden Primeau started in net for Laval and Amir Miftakhov for Syracuse. The Crunch were playing the second game in a back-to-back set of their own, while the Rocket had not played since the overtime loss at home against the Rochester Americans on October 30.

FIRST PERIOD

Meeting number one for these two teams was underway, and both sides used the first five minutes of the first as a feeling-out period, sizing up their opponents before launching into their attacks. The Rocket looked to take control of the game once they had a good feel for their foes but were met by a firm Crunch backcheck, only for the same to be true when the situations were reversed. Both sides spent the first half of the period with play bouncing back and forth between the zones, where they sought to capitalize on great chances, only to be foiled by an equally strong backcheck or an outstanding save by the goalies.

Thirty seconds into the second half of the period, however, the tide started to change for the home team. They were awarded the first power play of the evening when Rocket defenseman Gianni Fairbrother was sent off for hooking. The power play got off to a slow start for the Crunch as the Rocket got back and cleared the puck down the ice on their first couple of attempts. When they did get the first handful of shots in on Primeau, he stood them up. The Crunch regrouped and started pouncing on the rebounds Primeau was coughing up and — despite the defensive pressure from Laval — Tristin Langan opened the scoring, finishing a play from Cole Koepke and Gage Goncalves through the traffic in front of the Rocket net.

Just past the 13:00 mark, Brandon Baddock gave the Crunch another chance at the power play when he was sent off for boarding. This time, the man advantage was not successful. Laval forced possession away shorthanded and killed off precious time. When Syracuse did get it back into the offensive zone to set up a play, their best shot rang iron, and they tried to jump on the loose puck, but Primeau knew exactly where it was and stretched out for a high-flying save. The power play expired, and the Crunch maintained possession, but the Rocket quickly turned it around and ran it back to the offensive zone. They didn’t camp out in front of Miftakhov long and play volleyed back and forth for a bit.

In the last five minutes of the period, Koepke set the Rocket on their first power play of the night on a high-sticking call. The Crunch penalty kill forced the Rocket back out of the zone over and over again, keeping them from setting up anything dangerous or finding a rhythm. Play returned to even strength with the Crunch, keeping the Rocket from registering a single shot on net since the three they loosed in the first five minutes of play. The buzzer sounded on the first period, and the Crunch took the lead, control of the game, and all of the momentum back down the tunnel and into the locker room with them. The Crunch bulldozed the Rocket in the first 20 minutes of the game, in no small part because of their defense and goaltending. On the other end, goaltending was also the difference-maker for Laval: Primeau made excellent saves on dangerous chances despite getting scored on.

SECOND PERIOD

Thirty-three seconds into the second, Jesse Ylönen was assessed a holding penalty and sent the Crunch to their third power play of the evening. Much like the last one, Syracuse’s chances were foiled by solid play from Primeau and a disruptive Laval penalty kill. Once again, the Crunch maintained possession of the puck after the man advantage expired. This time, when the Rocket tried to turn the momentum in their favor, the Crunch stopped them with a disruptive game of their own, limiting the time the Rocket spent in the offensive zone.

At 05:43, Sean Day gave Laval another shot at evening out the score a man up on a hooking call, but, like the first Rocket power play, nothing was getting through the penalty killers. The chances that did get through were expertly kept at bay by Miftakhov. The weak Rocket power play couldn’t get past a strong Crunch penalty kill, and 5-on-5 resumed as the penalty expired. The Rocket seemed to find a tiny spark they could try to fan into a flame from that unsuccessful power play. They turned around and launched some great chances at Miftakhov, but the Crunch were having none of that and iced the puck to quell whatever momentum the Rocket might have gained from those strong shifts.

At the eight-minute mark, the Crunch further tilted the ice in their direction with a pair of goals scored 20 seconds apart due to turnovers in the neutral zone. The first was scored at 08:17 by Daniel Walcott (assisted by former Rocket Charles Hudon) and the second at 08:37 by Koepke (assisted by Langan and Day). The Crunch had a three-goal lead and a goaltender who seemed unwilling to let his opponents onto the scoresheet. Following the third Crunch goal, the Rocket looked to have found new life and let loose a flurry of shots. None of them seemed to be able to solve Miftakhov. Syracuse tightened up, playing a more physical defensive game, looking to close out the period holding onto the shutout their netminder had worked so hard for. Laval kept powering through, unfazed by the defensive pressure from the Crunch.

13:54 into the second, Evan Wardley tossed Laval another power-play opportunity when he served two for cross-checking. The Rocket approached this power play with more urgency than the previous two, moving the puck and creating high-danger chances while maintaining possession when the Crunch tried to clear. They ran into the same problem this time around — the brick wall between Syracuse’s pipes. Wardley returned to the ice, and the Rocket were still no closer to solving the Miftakhov conundrum. The Rocket had found their life and their game, however. They regained the lead on the shot clock and were playing more to their strengths, but the strength of the Crunch defense was still their biggest challenge. In the last five minutes of the period, an observer would never know that the Crunch were the ones on the tail-end of a back-to-back set. They were closing the period the way they started the game: with tons of energy and high-octane physicality — the Crunch set about locking down the neutral zone and keeping the visitors at bay. The Rocket pressed hard and found their way through the neutral zone. Their hard work was rewarded with another power play in the dying minutes.

Koepke found himself back in the box, this time for holding, and the Rocket held onto the pressure they found in their last power play. The Crunch refused to let go of the defensive chokehold they had on the Rocket. The buzzer sounded on the period with time still left on the power play for the Rocket. They took that momentum back to the room with them and would resume play in the third with a brief chance for redemption a man up.

THIRD PERIOD

The penalty expired before anything could be made of the power play, but Laval took the chance to up their physicality. Syracuse was making them waste time trying to set up zone entries only to find that those same Syracuse players were in the perfect position to disrupt the plays they could make. The Crunch used those disrupted plays to turn the game around and get back out in front of Primeau. The Rocket continued to press on, but it was just too little, too late. The Crunch were able to capitalize on their early chances while the Rocket spent far too much time sitting back on their heels and playing from behind. Laval found the extra gear they were missing from their game and matched the energy that Syracuse had been playing with all game. Play bounced back and forth for the better part of the first half of the third, but the majority of the period was still spent in front of Primeau.

Just inside the second half of the period, the referees let play go, and there was very little stoppage. The Rocket may have been pushing back against the onslaught of the home team, but the Crunch were more than equal to the task of dealing with the visitors’ newfound pressure. Primeau skated off to the bench in favor of the extra attacker, and his team went to work on breaking the shutout. They spent a lot of time cycling the puck without taking any real chances and coughed it up to the Crunch a handful of times. They were able to get it back and start the process over again to no avail. Syracuse recovered the puck and sent it down the ice, just missing the empty net twice. At 17:06, Gabriel Dumont did what two previous Crunch attempts could not and, when the puck missed the net, got back to it before the Rocket defenders could. Dumont picked the puck up from behind the net and wrapped it around past Rocket captain Xavier Ouellet to seal the Rocket’s fate.

The Rocket kept pressing, looking for anything, but the Crunch grabbed possession and closed out the game the way they spent the rest of it: on the attack in front of Primeau. The Rocket couldn’t solve Miftakhov, and he earned his first North American shutout.

But the weekend wasn’t over for Laval.

SUNDAY — Utica Comets

On Sunday evening, the Rocket hit the road and found themselves in Utica for the second game in their back-to-back set. They geared up to face the third New York team this season as they visited the Comets’ home barn for the first time this year. The Rocket had that shutout loss from Saturday to contend with, while the Comets were on the third game of a 3-in-3, having hosted the Toronto Marlies Saturday and earning a decisive win. Nico Daws and Michael McNiven defended the Comets and Rocket creases, respectively.

FIRST PERIOD

The Comets won possession on the opening faceoff and camped out in front of McNiven. The Rocket couldn’t control the play or clear the zone for very long before the Comets found themselves back in the visitors’ end of the ice. The theme this weekend was the Rocket meeting an opponent they should outplay because the schedule worked in their favor and being outplayed by that opponent from the start. That was just as true for Sunday as it was for Saturday.

Laurent Dauphin left the Rocket shorthanded at 03:23 on a hooking call, and the Comets set about gaining some momentum on the power play. They moved the puck well, creating shooting lanes and outworking the penalty killers, but McNiven shut down all of their chances with some solid play. Utica was unsuccessful on their first stab at the power play, and killing the early penalty breathed some life into the Rocket. They made their way into Utica’s zone and tested Daws, who didn’t budge. Both teams settled into the game and split time between each other’s defensive zones until Utica managed to grab possession and run with it. They set up shop in front of McNiven and made him work for his saves until the Rocket could clear the puck and enter the offensive zone at the other end of the ice.

Unlike the game the night before, Laval found some footing in the first period and stayed with the Comets. In the second half of the period, both teams settled into the pace that permeated the entire match: a steady, moderately physical game. This wasn’t shaping up to be a high-flying, bone-crushing game, but rather a game of skill, where passing and smart plays would make all the difference. With just under five minutes to go, Ouellet takes the second Rocket penalty of the night and sent the home team to yet another power play. This time, Laval jumped on Utica’s mistakes to keep the zone clear and killed off the penalty without much time defending the crease.

In the closing minute, the push from both teams to hold the momentum going into the intermission led to some clear-cut back and forth where one great chance at one end turned around and became a great chance at the other end. The Comets came out as the clear winner in the mad dash to control the period. They had the best chances of the period so far, ringing iron three times and forcing McNiven to make the hard saves. They took that tiny edge down the tunnel with them to regroup.

SECOND PERIOD

The second period rolled around, and the game picked up exactly where it left off — the same easy pace and steady work from both forechecks. A minute and a half into the period, Tyce Thompson poked home a feed from Fabian Zetterlund on a shot from RobbieRusso that got stuck on the side of the Rocket’s net. The Comets broke the scoreless tie and put the home team up by one early in the middle frame. The Thompson goal gave Utica an energy boost, and they spent the next five minutes making Laval work hard for their chances. The Rocket missed the net on one of those chances, and the puck was picked up and deposited back behind McNiven on a 3-on-1. A little tic-tac-toe from Nikita Okhotiuk and Nate Schnarr to Joe Gambardella beat McNiven around his left leg and extended the Comets’ lead to two.

If the first goal gave the beleaguered Comets an energy boost, the second goal absolutely revitalized them. The second goal motivated the Rocket, who got to work trying to push the pace in their direction in front of Daws. The Rocket were still disjointed. A misplay gave the Comets another odd-man rush, but McNiven got all of the shot and kept the score the same. The shift in energy for both sides brought the game’s pace up from slow and steady to quick and easy. Inside the second half of the second, Utica was still outshooting Laval, and most of the action was coming from the efforts of the Comets. The Rocket were putting some shots toward Daws, but the Comets’ defense was running roughshod over the Rocket’s forecheck.

Utica just plain outworked Laval for the last 10 minutes of the game, jumping on even the faintest whisper of a chance to get the puck behind McNiven. The Rocket defense couldn’t keep up with the advancing Comets, and they couldn’t find a way to patch those holes, which Utica exploited. Late in the period, the Comets took their first penalty of the night. Thompson was sent to the box for holding at 18:34. The Rocket power play created some excellent chances and moved the puck well, but the Comets found a way to clear the puck before the chances got too dangerous. At 19:41, A.J. Greer took a tripping penalty on a rush toward Daws, and the Rocket got to try out some 5-on-3 play for the remainder of the period. The power play continued to get good looks and set up the Rocket’s best chances of the game to that point. The period closed before the two-man advantage did, so the Rocket took about 30 seconds of 5-on-3 play with them to the locker room, with more power-play time on deck to start the third.

THIRD PERIOD

The puck dropped on the final period, and the Rocket power play got back down to business. The 5-on-3 expired quickly, but at 00:38 and still a man up, Dauphin — with helpers from Ouellet and Caufield — netted the Rocket their first goal in two games and broke the shutout. Following their power-play goal, the Rocket tightened up a little more, and both teams continued working hard to foil the other’s efforts. Around the five-minute mark, Zetterlund got a clear breakaway that McNiven adeptly keeps in front of him. McNiven, it seems, wasn’t going to be getting a break from all the work he’d spent doing in the first two periods.

Gambardella took a goaltender interference penalty nearly a minute after the breakaway, and the Rocket got another shot at the power play. They weren’t as effective on this one, and Utica even found a quick look shorthanded. Play returned to even strength, and the Rocket quickly put the puck behind Daws. Unfortunately, that puck was played with a high stick and was ruled no-good. The Comets found even more inspiration from the penalty kill on the Gambardella penalty and settled into the rest of the period, re-staking their claim on the offensive zone. McNiven struggled with rebound control inside the second half of the period and gave the Comets all they needed to retake their two-goal lead.

At 12:54, Graeme Clarke picked up a rebound from Jesper Boqvist and ChaseDeLeo‘s look and tapped it in. Tempers were flaring a bit on both sides, but the game was very disciplined, and the referees rewarded that by letting play go on and keeping play going. Players got chippy after whistles, but no penalties were called. With so little stoppage in play, the period was drawing to an end rather quickly. The Rocket set up for one hard push at the end and found the back of the net one more time. Louie Belpedio and Fairbrother connected with Ylönen to cut the lead back to one. The Rocket had enough time to get back into the game, and they were going for it. The focus turned to clearing the zone and maintaining possession so McNiven could vacate the net and an extra attacker could get in on the action.

The Comets refused to let the Rocket find a clear gap to pull their goalie. Play kept finding its way back into the Rocket zone, and McNiven was trapped. When he finally did get out of play, Utica launched the puck down the ice, and Boqvist, De Leo, and Clarke combined for the empty netter after Boqvist beat the icing to knock the puck in as it bounced off the dasher. With that insurance goal, the Comets bested the Rocket and improved to a 7-0-0 record on the season. The Rocket have dropped all four of their last four games.

The Rocket are back in action on Wednesday. November 10, at 7:30 pm Eastern, when they host the Belleville Senators.

 

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

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