AHL Morning Skate: 6.9.22

Photo: Jack Lima

A2-Springfield Thunderbirds vs. N3-Laval Rocket
Game 4 – Friday, 7:00 ET, AHLTV
(Springfield leads series, 2-1)

Game 1 – Sat., June 4 – SPRINGFIELD 2, Laval 1 (OT) | Recap
Game 2 – Sun., June 5 – Laval 4, SPRINGFIELD 2 | Recap
Game 3 – Wed., June 8 – Springfield 6, LAVAL 3 | Recap
Game 4 – Fri., June 10 – Springfield at Laval, 7:00
Game 5 – Sat., June 11 – Springfield at Laval, 7:00
*Game 6 – Mon., June 13 – Laval at Springfield, 7:05
*Game 7 – Wed., June 15 – Laval at Springfield, 7:05
*if necessary… All times Eastern

C1-Chicago Wolves vs. P1-Stockton Heat
Game 4 – Friday, 10:00 ET, AHLTV
(Chicago leads series, 3-0)

Game 1 – Fri., June 3 – CHICAGO 5, Stockton 4 (OT) | Recap
Game 2 – Mon., June 6 – CHICAGO 3, Stockton 2 | Recap
Game 3 – Wed., June 8 – Chicago 3, STOCKTON 0 | Recap
Game 4 – Fri., June 10 – Chicago at Stockton, 10:00
*Game 5 – Sat., June 11 – Chicago at Stockton, 9:00
*Game 6 – Tue., June 14 – Stockton at Chicago, 8:00
*Game 7 – Wed., June 15 – Stockton at Chicago, 8:00
*if necessary… All times Eastern

“What a special night.”

That’s how Thunderbirds forward Will Bitten described last night’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against Laval.

Opportunities for Bitten to play at Place Bell have been rare. Against the National Hockey League organization that traded him at the start of his career, Bitten scored four times in a 6-3 win over the Rocket to give Springfield a 2-1 series lead.

Skating on the right side of a line with Mackenzie MacEachern and Dakota Joshua, Bitten played in Laval for just the second time in his career, and had some 40 friends and family in town from nearby Ottawa.

This series has meant something special for Bitten, a 2016 third-round pick by the Montreal Canadiens. A trade on Oct. 3, 2018 ― just before the start of his rookie season ― sent Bitten to the Minnesota Wild for defenseman Gustav Olofsson. Another deal, to the St. Louis Blues earlier this season, brought Bitten to the Thunderbirds.

“He’s a competitive player,” Springfield head coach Drew Bannister said of Bitten. “He goes to the hard areas. He’s obviously quick on his skates. He does have a good element of skill, but I think just the competitiveness... I mean, it’s tough hockey when you play here. It’s tough to win hockey games. You have to be willing to go to those hard areas.”

Even before Bitten’s offensive work in Game 3, Springfield withstood some early setbacks and pushed back. Laval’s Rafaël Harvey-Pinard had opened the scoring 5:51 into the game before another Place Bell sellout, only to see the Thunderbirds undo that lead 3:05 later.

Laval killed off Nate Schnarr’s high-sticking double-minor, a Springfield power play that also featured a full minute of 5-on-3 time early in the second period. Then another 90 seconds of Springfield 5-on-3 midway through the period. But the Thunderbirds are a persistent bunch, and they finally managed to crack Rocket netminder Cayden Primeau late in the period on a goal from Hugh McGing to take a 2-1 lead.

Bitten followed with his first goal 2:30 later, and his night only got better from there with three third-period goals that followed.

“We stuck with it,” Bitten said. “That’s a big thing our team has. Everyone’s so tight in the dressing room. We’re sticking with it. We’re putting our heads down [to] work and honestly got rewarded there.

“Getting the win was huge, and we’re really excited for Friday night.”

This week has afforded Bitten, 23, a chance to relive some of his past hockey life.

“Coming here, just driving by Montreal and Laval, so many great memories here,” Bitten said. “But I wanted to show [the Canadiens] what they’re missing out on. Just trying to play my 100 percent, and obviously getting the win is the biggest thing, but four goals is the cherry on top.”

Nobody had to tell Laval players last night.

They knew.

“It’s really taxing,” Rocket forward Alex Belzile said of the club’s Game 3 penalty trouble. “We were on our heels instead of being on our toes. It’s tough to catch up after that many penalties.”

Harvey-Pinard said, “We have to avoid the box, and be a little bit more disciplined.”

Handing the Thunderbirds eight power-play opportunities cannot happen. In that mix were the two 5-on-3 situations that left the Rocket shorthanded for much of the second period. And even though the penalty kill finished a perfect 8-for-8 on the night, Primeau was bombarded with 22 shots in that second period and Springfield eventually did break through with two late-period tallies to take a 3-1 lead.

“Those two goals back-to-back really broke our legs, and it was tough to come back from it,” Rocket head coach J-F Houle told reporters after the game.

To compound matters for Laval, they had to attempt that comeback against a physical, grinding team like Springfield that can wear down opponents relentlessly. Recognizing that challenge and finding a solution to it in Game 4 and beyond is part of the growth and development process that comes with Calder Cup Playoff games.

“I thought they played a heavy game,” Houle said. “They were heavy in our zone, and our smaller-stature players didn’t fare too well against them.

“We’ve got to play with a lot more grit if you want to win this series.”

Patrick Williams

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