Resurgent Rocket eyeing strong second half

Photo: Matt Garies / Arena du Rocket Inc.

📝 by Patrick Williams

The road has been filled with plenty of twists, turns, and detours, along with a few false starts.

But at long last the Laval Rocket appear to have found their way.

After a start in which they won just seven of their first 24 games and found themselves in a deep North Division hole, the Rocket are firmly in contention for a return to the Calder Cup Playoffs. Amid a crush of injuries and recalls to the parent Montreal Canadiens, head coach J.F. Houle’s club is unbeaten in regulation in its last seven outings (4-0-2-1), its best run of the season.

“I feel like we’re turning the corner,” Houle said.

The top five clubs in the North Division will make the postseason cut, and the 17-18-6-2 Rocket are now five points clear of that dividing line. They do yield three games in hand to their closest pursuer, the Cleveland Monsters, but they gained at least a bit of extra room by taking three of a possible four points in a two-game visit to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse this past weekend.

Considering that early open to their season, the Rocket will take it.

Laval became one of the AHL’s top stories last spring, securing their first-ever playoff berth over the second-to-last weekend of the regular season before outlasting Syracuse in a best-of-five fight that required a come-from-behind Game 5 overtime victory on the road. They needed triple overtime to close out a sweep of Rochester in the division finals, and went the distance in the Eastern Conference Finals before their season finally ended in a Game 7 loss to Springfield.

All along the way, the Rocket continued to build their place on the Montreal sports scene. Just a short ride from downtown Montreal’s Bell Centre, a place that Rocket prospects hope to one day call their full-time home, Laval’s Place Bell was packed each night and made the building a gauntlet for visiting opponents.

But the summer hit the Rocket roster hard. Those strong individual performances opened opportunities in other NHL organizations for several key players. The Montreal organization lost several players, including high-scoring forward Jean-Sebastien Dea and Rocket captain Xavier Ouellet, to opportunities elsewhere. And as the Rocket struggled for much of the first half of 2022-23, that playoff run suddenly felt quite distant.

Gaining even this bit of breathing room recently has been a long road. Goaltender Cayden Primeau, a key story from the postseason run, played just once for the Rocket in a two-month span starting Nov. 25 before returning to the lineup last week and taking three starts in four nights. The Rocket roster went into Cleveland without do-everything forward Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, top-six presence Jesse Ylönen and captain Alex Belzile, all of them being on recall to the Canadiens. So is AHL All-Star defenseman Justin Barron, who has been out of the Laval line-up for six weeks.

Along with Primeau, the Laval injury list has included defensemen Nicolas Beaudin, Madison Bowey, Tory Dello and Otto Leskinen for extended periods, as well as forwards Brandon Gignac, Danick Martel, Jan Mysak, Nate Schnarr and Xavier Simoneau at different points.

“We take it in stride,” Houle said of his ever-changing roster. “We have a next-man-up mentality. Next guy goes, you’ve got to be ready, and you’ve got to compete. You can’t overthink things. You just go with what you’ve got, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

This current run began Jan. 14, less than 24 hours after a 7-3 hammering in Syracuse dropped the Rocket to 13-18-4-1. Following the bus ride home, Laval came out and inflicted punishment of their own by dinging the Monsters, 6-2.

Another test loomed with division leaders coming to Place Bell on consecutive nights. On Jan. 20, the Rocket fell behind 2-0 in the first period to the Hershey Bears before Joël Teasdale assembled his first career AHL hat trick, completing it 1:07 into overtime to take a 3-2 victory. The next afternoon, Laval erased a pair of Toronto Marlies leads and pulled out another standings point when Anthony Richard scored late in regulation of an eventual 4-3 shootout loss.

Laval’s power play, 12-for-42 on their current seven-game run, now sits third in the league at 24.1 percent efficiency (46-for-191). The Rocket are seventh in scoring (3.51 goals per game), and their 34.5 shots per game top the AHL. Opponents have trouble containing Laval’s speed, and a shoot-first approach complicates matters further.

“They’re a really hard team to play,” Rochester Americans head coach Seth Appert said earlier this month. “I think every coach in our division would probably say it — they play a frantic style.

“Chaotic, but it’s a plan. It’s intentional by them. They punt pucks into the neutral zone. Their forwards fly early from the D zone, and they put your defensemen in a lot of compromised positions that way. They shoot everything. Everything’s being funneled to the net, and then they whip it right back to the net after the goalie makes the save.”

Said Houle: “We’re a relentless team.”

Another chance to play that relentless style comes this weekend when the Rocket visit Toronto for back-to-back rematches with the Marlies. When the Rocket last went to Coca-Cola Coliseum on Jan. 8, they dropped a 4-2 decision to Marlies goaltender Joseph Woll despite outshooting their hosts, 58-17.

Richard was with Syracuse last season and faced the Rocket in the division semifinals. He took note of what Calder Cup Playoff hockey looks like in Laval.

“Everyone knows the playoffs in Laval are special, and it’s a great city to play in,” said Richard, who signed with the Canadiens in the offseason.

Getting that buy-in and overcoming the bad start has the Rocket poised to make the second half of this season’s schedule one that counts. That pressure means more opportunity to Habs prospects to play pressure-filled games down the stretch. And, if all goes well for Houle and his crew, to get another crack at the postseason this spring.

Houle knows that in the AHL, sometimes just adjusting to circumstances is the best you can do.

“You just have to go with the flow sometimes.”