Thunderbirds, Rocket ready to go at last

📝 by Patrick Williams

Enough practice. The Laval Rocket and Springfield Thunderbirds want to play.

Thanks to rather efficient work in their respective previous Calder Cup Playoff rounds, both clubs have had ample rest going into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals tonight in Springfield (7:35 ET, AHLTV).

Laval has had nine days off going into tonight’s game since completing a sweep of the Rochester Americans the North Division Finals back on May 25. Springfield finished off the Charlotte Checkers last round, sweeping the Atlantic Division Finals a week ago in the latest memorable moment for a club in the first season of an affiliation with the St. Louis Blues.

“Our players don’t want to practice,” Rocket head coach J-F Houle said earlier this week. “They want to play games.”

Well, there will be plenty of game action coming up. The series begins with back-to-back games in Springfield tonight and tomorrow, followed by potentially three games in four nights at Place Bell next week.

For Springfield hockey fans, this is the city’s first trip this deep into the Calder Cup Playoffs since the Springfield Falcons fell in seven games in the 1997 Southern Conference Finals against the Hershey Bears.

“We don’t want our summer to start,” Thunderbirds forward Will Bitten said. “We’re here to win it all. I think the excitement here in the city, especially, and at our rink has given us a huge boost.”

Both clubs have taken somewhat different paths to this match-up. Laval first had to go a full five games ― and overtime of Game 5 ― against the Syracuse Crunch in their North Division semifinal series before finishing off the pesky Amerks. Springfield, however, has had a particularly efficient path to June hockey; the lone remaining undefeated team in the Calder Cup Playoffs swept both Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Charlotte to advance out of the Atlantic Division.

Plenty of intriguing storylines dot this series, starting in net with Thunderbirds veteran Charlie Lindgren, who spent five AHL seasons with the Montreal organization in Laval and St. John’s before signing with the St. Louis Blues last summer. Lindgren put together a dominant season in Springfield, going 24-7-1 with three shutouts, a 2.21 goals-against average, and a .925 save percentage during the regular season.

Lindgren, who missed the Charlotte series after being recalled by the Blues following Jordan Binnington’s injury against the Colorado Avalanche, is now back with Springfield. Without Lindgren available, the Thunderbirds turned to Joel Hofer, and the 21-year-old second-year pro has league bests in GAA (1.51) and save percentage (.962) in his four playoff starts. He also scored an empty-net goal in Game 2 of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton series.

In the other crease stands Laval’s Cayden Primeau, who took control of the net from veteran Kevin Poulin for Game 2 of the Syracuse series and has remained there ever since. Primeau is 6-1 with a 1.96 GAA and a .936 save percentage.

Primeau and Lindgren were teammates with Laval in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

“It’s going to be fun seeing him and being able to compete against him,” Lindgren said.

On the Springfield blueline is Calle Rosen, one of the top players in the AHL at that position. Also just back from St. Louis, where he played nine Stanley Cup Playoff games for the Blues, Rosen has a chance to chase his second Calder Cup championship after getting a ring with the Toronto Marlies in 2018. Rosen divided his regular season between St. Louis and Springfield, playing 40 games with the Thunderbirds and notching 28 points (four goals, 24 assists).

While Rosen can bring a slick, playmaking presence to the Springfield defense corps, they also have plenty of snarl to throw at the Rocket. Luke Witkowski and captain Tommy Cross provide toughness and experience, Tyler Tucker can exasperate opponents, and Steven Santini, Brady Lyle, Josh Wesley, and Griffin Luce all have shown capably.

Laval will counter with experience via a strong pairing with captain Xavier Ouellet and Louie Belpedio. Sami Niku won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s top defenseman in 2017-18. Corey Schueneman is back with the Rocket after playing 24 games for the Canadiens this season, but Mattias Norlinder (upper body) is not likely to play this series, according to Houle. The blue line also features steady fourth-year pro Tobie Paquette-Bisson and rookie Tory Dello, who had a plus-28 rating in 55 regular-season games.

Up front, the Thunderbirds own a well-balanced attack that can put the puck in the net and have averaged a league-high 5.33 goals per game during the Calder Cup Playoffs. After another dominant regular season, Springfield forward Sam Anas has carried that level of play through the team’s first two rounds with 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in six games. Anas and the pesky Bitten, another one-time Habs prospect, have helped to key Springfield’s dominant postseason power play that is 11-for-29 (37.9 percent) on the man-advantage.

Of course, there is also two-time Stanley Cup finalist James Neal, who has five points (two goals, three assists) in five playoff contests and is capable of taking over a game. Former Rocket forward Matthew Peca is an elite two-way player, while rookies Nikita Alexandrov and Hugh McGing join a forward group that also includes Dakota Joshua, Klim Kostin, and Mackenzie MacEachern ― who all spent significant time in St. Louis this season.

“I think what makes us special would be just up and down our lineup, our depth,” Lindgren said.

The Rocket have a speedy, up-tempo group of forwards. Danick Martel has broken loose for six goals in eight playoff games and can frustrate opponents with his exuberant on-ice personality. Fellow ex-Thunderbird Jean-Sébastien Dea has been a long-time top-flight AHL forward. Alex Belzile and Cédric Paquette are additional disrupters in the Laval lineup. Gabriel Bourque, Brandon Gignac, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Nate Schnarr, Joël Teasdale, and Jesse Ylönen round out a skilled group of forward options for Houle.

That spirited group of Rocket forwards will have 10 days of pent-up energy to begin using tonight as they jump back into the playoff fray against a club that will willingly engage them.

“It’s nice to get some rest and take some time with your family and friends,” Dea said, “but we’ve just got to be able to regroup and go back to work.”

Lindgren says that the mood around the Thunderbirds compares favorably to that in St. Louis.

“I think comparing that locker room up there to the locker room here, I think we’ve got a lot of the same [elements],” Lindgren said. “We’ve got a really good leadership group here.

“Everything’s not always going to go your way. You’re going to give up goals. You’re going to lose a game eventually. It’s how you respond to that. I think seeing how St. Louis handles that and the leadership group up there, seeing that first-hand, I know I can take some of what I learned up there [and bring it] down here, too.”

“We certainly know it’s gonna be a really hard test,” Lindgren said of the upcoming series. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”