Rocket News: AHL, Laval Rocket, Springfield Thunderbirds, Jean-Francois Houle, Alex Belzile, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Calder Cup Playoffs, Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues, Conference Final

Charlie Lindgren, Springfield Thunderbirds vs Laval Rocket (Photo by Laval Rocket)

ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA | LAVAL, QC. —The Eastern Conference Final between the Laval Rocket and the Springfield Thunderbirds continued over the weekend with a pair of games at Place Bell.

On Friday, Springfield took an early 2-0 lead in the first before a goal scored by Jean-Sebastien Dea turned things around for the home team. Cedric Paquette tied the game in the second period, and Rafael Harvey-Pinard gave Laval the 3-2 overtime win.

“It’s not the start that we wanted. [Springfield] came out strong, we had a turnover and icing, two plays that really cost us for two goals. We showed some character, we didn’t panic, and I didn’t expect anything less from this group. I think we’re a resilient group. It was a good team win,” coach Jean-Francois Houle explained the victory.

The game ended with a 40-man scrum on the ice that began when Thunderbirds goalie Joel Hofer speared Alex Belzile as the Rocket were celebrating near Springfield’s tunnel. “There’s no friends, we go to war every night. It’s things that happen in hockey, and if I got in [Hofer’s] head, I did my job,” Belzile said.

Belzile (along with Rocket teammate Danick Martel) leads the AHL in penalty minutes with 42 for the 2022 Calder Cup playoffs.

“I have no idea how it started. We wanted to celebrate with Rafael Harvey-Pinard, and their exit was near our gathering. I turned my head at one point, and I saw a lot of white jerseys headed our direction,” the forward added about the incident. “We got a big (win), and it’s normal that they were mad. If the situation was reversed, we wouldn’t be happy either.”

There was 99 penalty minutes handed out following the scrum by the officials. On Saturday morning, the Rocket spoke to the league about the post-game incidents, but no supplemental discipline was handed out by the AHL.

Blown Lead

On Saturday, the Rocket had a 2-0 lead through 36 minutes, before the Thunderbirds tied the score and force in overtime. Veteran James Neal sealed the victory with 1:25 remaining in the period giving Springfield a 3-2 series lead.

“It was a tight game again. It could have gone both ways, but again really short memory. We turn the page, and try to go earn a Game 7,” said captain Xavier Ouellet.

“I don’t think we played our best defensive game, but I don’t think it was incredibly bad either. It’s good team. There’s a lot of traffic in the offensive zone, they shoot on net from everywhere. I don’t think the number of shots allowed reflects our performance in the defensive zone, but I think there’s room to improve it for the next game,” Harvey-Pinard said.

Danick Martel and Dea both had golden opportunities to win the game in overtime, but failed to convert. “When you have a chance to bury it in overtime, you have to bury it. You don’t get too many chances. We had two golden opportunities, those are quality chances in overtime, and you got to make them pay,” Houle said.

Harvey-Pinard Scoring Touch

After failing to score through the first nine games of the playoff run, Harvey-Pinard has found his scoring touch. The forward has netted Laval’s last three goals, and is currently on a four-game scoring streak, collecting five goals during the stretch.

“There was a lot of emotions. I saw it go in, and forgot about everything else going on. It happens so fast. It’s probably the most important goal of my career. A nice moment for me,” said the forward about Friday’s winning goal.

“He just plays so hard, and he always goes to the net. If he continues doing that, it’s eventually going to go in for him. Confidence has something to do with it,” Houle said before adding that everyone looks up to him because of his work ethic.

“He’s been good since the beginning of these playoffs. I know people talked about him not scoring for awhile, but he was still playing well and now it’s going in. I think he’s doing an excellent job for us, he’s bringing in energy, he’s battling as hard as he can, and he’s getting rewarded right now, Ouellet said about the 23-year old.

Veteran Devante Smith-Pelly compared his teammate to Brendan Gallagher. “They play hard, they go to the net, and no offence to my buddy Gallagher, but I think Raphael is a little bit more skilled. He’s been amazing, and hopefully this playoff run propels him because he’s probably been our best player.”

Gallagher is the Saguenay native’s childhood idol. “When I get compared to [Gallagher], it’s an honour. Every time he goes on the ice, he’s one of the best players, always giving his 100 percent, but I’m Rafael Harvey-Pinard too, and I want to play my own style.”

Indiscipline

In the last three games of the series, Laval has granted Springfield 18 power play opportunities. The Rocket need to be more disciplined in order to come back and win the series.

“It doesn’t help to play on the penalty kill that much. It’s an intense game, it’s an emotional game, and guys are battling hard. I don’t know if all the calls are good calls, but we need to find a way to stay away from the box,” said Ouellet.

Laval’s shorthanded units have been perfect against Springfield, killing all of Springfield’s 25 power plays. The Thunderbirds had a 37.9 percent success rate with the man advantage in the playoffs heading into the Eastern Conference Final.

Even though their opponents have not capitalized with the extra attacker, the penalties have influenced the results. “It gets tiring to kill. Our killers do a helluva job, but to conserve energy we need to kill less,” Houle explained the impact.

“[Primeau] has done a lot of the key saves. Our penalty kill units have been sacrificing their bodies, blocking shots, having good sticks on the lanes, and competing hard,” Houle explained the success. The coach also credited the work of assistant coach Martin Laperriere for the perfect record.

“Everyone is willing to block shots and everyone’s stepping up. Guys are putting their bodies on the line, and when you see that commitment it’s infectious, and the whole team feeds off that,” added Cayden Primeau.

Must Win

On Sunday, the Rocket travelled to Syracuse ahead of Monday’s game against the Thunderbirds. Laval must win to extend the series for a seventh game on Wednesday.

In Calder Cup Playoffs history, 82.1 percent of the Game 5 winners when series tied at 2-2 have won the best-of-seven series. Odds are stacked against the Rocket.

“We’re not going to quit. All the guys in the dressing room know that we’re capable to win this series, and we’re going to arrive there with the bit between the teeth to get the win. I haven’t had this experience at this level, but there’s guys in the dressing room that do, and they will pass the message,” Harvey-Pinard.

Smith-Pelly is one of those veterans in Laval’s dressing room that has playoff experience at the professional level. “It’s not fun to be down in a series, but it’s fun to come back in the series.”

“We have a resilient group. We showed it throughout the year, and always bounced back. We’ll take it one game at a time. Every game, our guys give everything they have. We have a good group, and we don’t have to give big speeches. The guys know, they’re prepared, want to win, and know what to expect,” Houle said about the team’s mindset.

Laval may have to get the important victories without a couple of key centers. Brandon Gignac missed the last two games due to a lower body injury, and Nate Schnarr was out on Saturday with an injury. Both players are listed as day-to-day. In addition, Peter Abbandonato was injured during Game 3. No timeline has been provided for his absence.

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