Canadiens: Chance at History for Laval Rocket in Game 7

Laval's Jean-Sebastien Dea celebrates his game winning goal with teammate Xavier Ouellet. The Rocket won 6-5 in the 3rd overtime to win the North Division Final series.
Laval's Jean-Sebastien Dea celebrates his game winning goal with teammate Xavier Ouellet. The Rocket won 6-5 in the 3rd overtime to win the North Division Final series. /

As far as franchise beginnings go, the Laval Rocket haven’t had the easiest of starts, in stark contrast to their parent club, the Montreal Canadiens.

After a 2016-17 season that saw the St. John’s IceCaps become Montreal’s first AHL affiliate to make the postseason since 2010-11, management subsequently moved closer to home for the Habs next AHL club, settling on the Rocket, who would play in the newly constructed Place Bell arena right outside the Montmorency metro station. While expectations were high for Laval after a solid regular season showing from the IceCaps that saw them nearly upset the Syracuse Crunch in the qualifying round, things didn’t exactly go as expected.

Now, four seasons removed from those less-than-ideal beginnings, and the Rocket find themselves preparing for the biggest game in franchise history, sitting just one game away from an appearance in the Calder Cup Final. Going into 2021-22, Laval was without longtime head coach Joel Bouchard having jumped ship to coach the Anaheim Ducks affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. In his place, was son of former Canadiens GM Rejean Houle, Jean-Francois Houle. An experienced QMJHL and brief ECHL bench boss, Houle built upon Bouchard’s work ethic-oriented system and ran with it, leading the Rocket to their first post-season appearance with a 39-26-5 record.

While Bouchard was eventually given the axe in San Diego, Laval’s performance over these playoffs have made his absence but a distant memory. Facing a Game 7 against the Springfield Thunderbirds in the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday, Laval has a chance at accomplishing something once thought to be unheard of from the Canadiens AHL clubs.

Simply put, the Habs haven’t had a solid AHL team in a long, long time, and there’s a lot more to that small statement than meets the eye (trust me, I know). Going into the 2017-18 season, the last truly successful run a Habs affiliate had was from the Hamilton Bulldogs, who from 2005-06 to 2009-10 made three Conference Finals appearance including a Calder Cup title in 2006.

Led by mid-tier Habs prospects in Brock Trotter and Aaron Palushaj paired with a rotating cast of solid goaltender and defense (including Carey Price) and it’s amazing how distant of a memory those mid 2000s early 2010s Bulldogs teams seem in hindsight. In fairness, the Rocket did manage to bring in a few intriguing pieces prior to their inaugural season, including established AHL and overseas scorers in Peter Holland, Matt Taormina, Byron Froese, and Jakub Jerabek among others. Coupled with the return of regulars like Chris Terry, Nikita Scherbak and Michael McCarron, and Laval got off to a solid, if mostly middling and unassuming start to the season.

Then, as is sadly a recurring theme for the Habs, Montreal’s 2017-18 season quickly went down the drain, due to downright poor performance and the injury bug amongst other things which, naturally, led to the typical trickle-down effect that completely gutted both the Rocket’s roster and their ECHL affiliate, the Brampton Beast.

With players like Holland, Jerabek, Froese and McCarron either being traded, briefly called up, or serving regular bottom six roles, the Rocket’s depth completely and utterly tanked, as aside from an unbelievably productive group of Taormina, Terry, and mid-season pickup Adam Cracknell, Laval had next to nothing offensively, defensively, or in goal.

Having dressed a whopping 51 different players over the course of the season, Laval turned to such regulars as Trevor Owens, Bailey Webster, Tyson Wilson, and Jackson Leef to get the job done, and it was only worse for the Beast (Vincent Dunn, anyone?).

In the end, the Rocket finished their inaugural season with a near unheard of 12-game losing streak, compiling one of the more bizarre seasons in AHL history, and setting a precedent for both unexpected minor league talent and lack of star power that Laval would eventually turn from a negative, into a defining characteristic of the team. 2021-22 marked a welcome change of plans for the Rocket after the team had been mired in a lineup often relying on ECHL players playing off of PTOs for the past two seasons.

While these did net the Rocket the heart and soul of the team in assistant captain and perennial Canadiens taxi squad favorite Alex Belzile (and produced some somewhat competitive records) others players like Alex Kile, Morgans Adams-Moisan and Hayden Verbeek just looked out of place, largely struggling with their consistency and production.

Well, that all changed over the course of last year’s off-season, with the Rocket inking multiple established professional talents to AHL-only contracts, which ultimately comprised the majority of their roster.

From NHL bottom six regular Gabriel Bourque to journeyman starter Kevin Poulin to established AHL talents in Kevin Roy, Brandon Gignac and Danick Martel, and this Rocket team brought a lot more firepower to the table, making a great underdog story to boot (with the majority of AHL rosters being filled with NHL contracted players).

Even with this new and improved roster however, what the Rocket have accomplished over the course of this 2021-22 season is nothing short of exceptional, especially considering how the Canadiens season fared in comparison. Finishing dead last in the NHL with a 22-49-11 record, Montreal on more than one occasion turned to several of the Rocket’s regular forwards, at one point resorting to fringe ECHL callups/role players in enforcer Brandon Baddock and third round pick Cameron Hillis.

In spite of this though, the Rocket’s over abundance of AHL-contracted players allowed them to remain competitive in spite of it, and it’s that same competitiveness that has left them just one game away from having a chance at minor league hockey’s ultimate prize.

Martel, Gignac, Bourque, Roy and numerous others took on regular offensive roles for Laval giving them a balanced and depth filled scoring attack. Longtime veterans in Xavier Ouellet, Belzile, Jesse Ylonen, Louie Belpedio, and Jean-Sebastien Dea contributed early and often, Rafael Harvey-Pinard continued his path towards becoming the next face of the franchise, and Poulin acted as the surprise of the season in many ways, going from an expected ECHL starter to a true 1B option that took immense pressure and at times, minutes from top prospect Cayden Primeau as Laval’s starter. Posting an 18-8-3 record with a 2.34 GAA, .920 SVP and 2 shutouts, Poulin emerged as one of the top regular season goalies in the AHL against all odds.

While they’ve had their ups and downs, being just 37 seconds away from their season ending in the qualifying round, a last second Cedric Paquette goal followed by a Bourque OT winner sent the Rocket to the second round in Game 5, whereupon Dea scored the winner in the next round to send Laval to the Conference Finals in a sweep.

Primeau has been the talk of the AHL since taking back the starting job with a .937 SVP, and the Rocket have thus far killed off every Thunderbirds powerplay in the series (0 for 33, yes really). While Springfield has largely been a match for the Rocket over this series with the likes of AHL stars in Sam Anas, Nathan Walker, Joel Hofer, and former Habs in Charlie Lindgren and Matthew Peca, Laval has been right there with them and now enter a do or die Game 7 and as stated, what is the biggest game in franchise history.

After all the struggles the Canadiens endured over this season, the Rocket’s surprise playoff run has been a breath of fresh air, and one that is personally fulfilling to me as a long-time follower of the dubious early days for this franchise. From a 12-game losing streak to an all-important Game 7, the Rocket finally have their chance at Calder Cup glory. Buckle up come Wednesday folks. The Laval Rocket are going for it.

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