Rocket, fans ready for next challenge

Photo: Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

Tous les billets sont vendus.

Sold out.

Be it French or English, those words mean another packed Place Bell tonight as the Laval Rocket welcome the visiting Rochester Americans for Game 1 of the North Division Finals (7 ET, AHLTV, RDS2).

The sellout will be Laval’s third in as many games during this spring’s Calder Cup Playoffs. Located just 20 minutes from downtown Montreal and Bell Centre, home to the parent Montreal Canadiens, Place Bell has become the area’s place to be for hockey fans this spring: the Rocket drew 9,873 fans for Game 3 against Syracuse in the last round, and packed in 10,043 for Game 4.

Both Rochester and Laval will be familiar with their respective situations tonight.

The Amerks won twice at the intimidating Adirondack Bank Center in Utica last round, including a Game 2 overtime victory to avoid a 2-0 series hole and a come-from-behind 4-2 win in the decisive Game 5 on Thursday.

For the Rocket, they have some experience playing high-pressure Calder Cup Playoff hockey in front of a Place Bell white-out this spring. They handled the Crunch in Game 3 with a dominant 4-1 victory, but Syracuse pushed back in Game 4 with a 3-0 shutout.

Laval was 24-8-3-1 at home during the regular season and has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the region, becoming the first Canadiens AHL affiliate to win a Calder Cup Playoff series since the Hamilton Bulldogs reached the conference finals in 2011.

“The guys were ecstatic,” Rocket head coach J-F Houle said of his team after Tuesday’s series-clinching win in Syracuse. “It was a great feeling to hear the guys cheer and be happy and everybody with a smile.”

Houle is mindful that his players will have to properly channel that Place Bell energy against the Amerks, however. Learning to manage intense playoff crowds is part of the American Hockey League development experience.

“I thought the first game here, I thought we handled it really [well],” Houle stated. “We actually used the crowd [to] our advantage, and [it gave] us a lot of momentum and energy the first game.

“The second game, not as much. We got our emotions maybe a little too high. And that’s where it’s important to manage your emotions, especially at home with your crowd.”

When the teams trek to Rochester for Games 3 and 4 (if necessary), they can expect an intense environment in Western New York as well. The Amerks had their own sellout crowd of 10,741 fans last Sunday for a wild 4-3 overtime decision in Game 3 against Utica.

“Loud, hostile environment,” Houle said of his expectation for the Blue Cross Arena. “Physical. I think our series against Syracuse and the last month of the season prepared us for this moment. I think we’ve been playing playoff hockey now for two months. Just to try to make the playoffs in our division was a hard task to do.

“I think that we’re going to be up for the challenge.”