The Laval Rocket battled back from a 2-0 deficit to eliminate the Syracuse Crunch in a 3-2 overtime thriller Tuesday night, punching their ticket to the North Division Finals.
Laval won because of their never-say-die attitude, which was evident from their play leading up to the game-tying goal. Cayden Primeau came up big when his team needed him, and his teammates rewarded him with an improbable comeback that included Cedric Paquette tying the game in the final 40 seconds with the goalie pulled, and then Gabriel Bourque ending the series midway through the first overtime.
The Laval Rocket are the first Canadiens’ AHL affiliate to win a playoff series since 2011 when the Hamilton Bulldogs made the third round under Randy Cunneyworth. Laval will face the winner of the Comets-Americans series. They will have home-ice advantage if the Americans win but will head to Utica if the Comets prevail in the series finale on Thursday night. The next round is scheduled to start on Sunday regardless of the winner.
Syracuse was once again the better team to start the game as they controlled the rhythm and dictated play. Even though the Rocket had chances, they were not dangerous enough and plays never saw second or third opportunities. Primeau had to make multiple key saves early to prevent the Crunch from taking the lead and possibly having a multi-goal lead midway through the opening period.
Danick Martel left the ice after a vicious hit from Pierre-Cedric Labrie but later returned and finished the game. The period continued in Syracuse’s favour up until Brandon Gignac was high-sticked by Ryan Jones after a crafty puck steal. The Rocket did not score on the powerplay but instead gave up one when Anthony Richard intercepted Jean-Sebastien Dea’s pass at the blue line and went on a breakaway and beat Primeau with a nice backhand goal to his glove side.
The Rocket have been setting up the same formation for the whole series to get Jesse Ylonen open for a one-timer but Richard read that play well and capitalized on Dea’s mistake. The Rocket had to forget their play in the first period as they had trouble creating offence. They had difficulties entering Syracuse’s zone and getting quality shots on Maxim Lagace, who was back in the net after leaving in the previous game with an injury.
Syracuse’s team defence showed up in the second and they limited Laval to the dump-and-chase strategy that was largely ineffective.
The Crunch were effective on the counterattack throughout the first half of the game. Alex Barre-Boulet, Anthony Walcott and Richard, in particular, got quality chances that were thwarted by Primeau. Once again, the Rocket netminder had to be the backbone of his team but even his heroics could not prevent Syracuse’s second goal when Barre-Boulet’s shot bounced off of his teammate and past Primeau., doubling their lead.
The Rocket got a favourable break a few minutes later when Gignac drew a penalty and Laval got its second powerplay of the game. The Rocket moved the puck around until Louie Belpedio saw an opening and took a slapshot which was deflected by Alex Belzile past Lagace. It was his fourth goal of the series. The Rocket seemed to have regained a lot of energy and finished the period on a positive note.
The Rocket’s second-period adjustments helped them be more synchronized and efficient in the third. They sent more bodies to the net and shot more pucks, creating better scoring chances. Houle has been doing this all series and it has paid dividends in many games whether they won or lost them. Jesse Ylonen had a couple of opportunities to score but Lagace stopped him on consecutive attempts.
The Crunch came close to scoring their third of the game but Mattias Norlinder made a big stick save near the goal line to prevent the puck from going in. Despite being utilized as the seventh defenceman under Houle, Norlinder’s game improved as the series went along, and he made some key plays in the rubber match. He has gained confidence as the playoffs have gone along.
The Crunch started to break down more as the period progressed and made mental mistakes that they did not make earlier in the game. The Rocket’s relentless energy and effort led to the tying goal late in the period when Cedric Paquette banked the puck off Lagace and into the net to tie the game. Paquette has been highly effective for Laval since being sent down on March 15 and once again showed his value by with his clutch goal that saved the Rocket’s season.
Danick Martel put his team in hot water when he took a hooking penalty early in the extra frame but Laval did not crack under pressure as they limited Syracuse’s space and Primeau stopped anything that couldn’t be blocked by his teammates. Both teams played tight hockey after Martel returned and there wasn’t much space to do anything creative. It was evident that the game-winning goal would not be a pretty one. The Rocket finally iced the game midway into overtime when Martel tried a wrap-around that ended up in the slot. Gabriel Bourque chopped at the puck and put the “wedge shot” past Lagace, perhaps fittingly sending the Crunch crew to the golf course.
The tee-off times for the Rocket players and coaches, on the other hand, will be delayed. They’re off to the North Division final.