Canadiens: Laval Rocket Have Inserted Themselves Back in the Playoff Picture

Syracuse Crunch v Laval Rocket - Game Three
Syracuse Crunch v Laval Rocket - Game Three / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages

On December 18th, the Laval Rocket sat last in the North Division with a 7-13-5 record and appeared to have no shot at making the postseason. They were coming off a 7-1 loss, and at the time, it felt like the potential for a coaching change was brewing.

That did not happen. Instead, JF Houle has managed to turn things around, and all of a sudden, the playoffs seem to be a legitimate possibility once again.

The Rocket are 17-14-4-2 on the season (OT losses and SO losses are counted separately in the AHL) and have completely turned things around. Now the Rocket are fourth in the division, having leapfrogged three teams and are 8-1-1-0 in their last ten games. This includes a gutsy home-and-home sweep of the Belleville Senators that was all sorts of ugly and violent from start to finish.

The turnaround seems to coincide with the arrival of Arber Xhekaj, but that seems to give him a little too much credit. Because the Rocket are finding ways to win without a lot of key contributors. Joshua Roy, who is second in team scoring has been up with the Habs for over a week now, and Sean Farrell, who was playing well, has been out with an injury, just to name a few missing pieces.

Still, Xhekaj’s presence has helped, no doubt. He has 11 points in 17 games this year and has formed a very nice top pairing alongside Logan Mailloux. Mailloux has 24 points in 37 games this year and is heading to the AHL All-Star game. But these two alone have only been part of a much larger turnaround for Laval.

JF Houle deserves a ton of credit, as the team has clearly bought into what he’s trying to do and has been better for it as a result. So often, on struggling teams, the coaches begin to lose the room, as if the players have lost faith in the man in charge. It would have been very easy to see the same happen in Laval, but instead, a complete 180 has occurred. Now the playoffs are back on the menu, and player development feels viable in Laval. Both Struble and Roy have shown the AHL has helped them, with both players playing well upon being called up to the big club. So

The other element that’s been vital to the turnaround in Laval? Goaltending. In December, when things were at rock bottom, Laval had given up the most goals in the AHL, and the rotation of Strauss Mann and Jakub Dobes wasn’t working. Since then, it’s gotten better, with the signing of Kasimir Kaskisuo to a PTO, who has played great. In four games, he’s sporting a 4-0-0-0 record, a 1.96 GAA and a .948 SV%. He’s brought a little stability to a crease that desperately needed it.

And Dobes has played much better during this stretch, too. His numbers are still rough on the year due to a bad start, but he’s been so much better as of late. He’s doing enough to give his team a chance to win. It’s amazing how many problems can dissipate when you get good goaltending.

Laval will look to keep this momentum rolling as they get closer and closer to the playoffs. There is still a long way to go, but what once felt like a pipe dream is now a very realistic possibility.