After winning three must-win games last week, Laval kicked off their best-of-three series against Utica on Wednesday. Already, they’re facing two more must-win games after the Comets picked up the 4-0 victory.
With Mitchell Stephens being injured in the regular season finale against Syracuse, Jean-Francois Houle was forced to make a change up front. Fortunately for the Rocket, Brandon Gignac was cleared to return, allowing them to sub in a centre. The team lined up as follows:
Harvey-Pinard – Abbandonato – Richard
Simoneau – Condotta – Ylonen
Heineman – Gignac – Dube
Bourque – Yaremko – Teasdale
Trudeau – Schueneman
Struble – Galipeau
Norlinder – Dello
Utica wasn’t firing on all cylinders off the start but they did have the best chances early on. In the opening minute, Ryan Schmelzer got around Corey Schueneman on the outside with speed, setting up a chance. Three minutes later, a point shot broke Xavier Simoneau’s stick but while the Comets worked the puck back to the point to Reilly Walsh, Simoneau did well to push him off the puck to thwart the shot.
Just before the five-minute mark, Brian Halonen got behind Mattias Norlinder by a half-step, giving him some runway in alone on Primeau. However, Halonen isn’t the quickest and wasn’t able to get off a particularly dangerous shot.
Eventually, Utica was able to get on the board. Walsh worked a perfect give-and-go with Jayce Hawryluk Walsh regaining the puck with speed. That allowed him to get around Rafael Harvey-Pinard with speed and drive the middle of the net. From there, he was able to slide it under Cayden Primeau to open up the scoring.
That didn’t really spark Laval but the Rocket did play better after that stretch. A minute and a half after the goal, Emil Heineman set up Pierrick Dube in the slot but he wasn’t able to pull the trigger. He and Zack Hayes went off for roughing after the whistle went but nothing much happened in that stretch.
Their best chance came with a little over two minutes left. Anthony Richard forced a turnover at Utica’s blueline, allowing Lucas Condotta to go in on a breakaway but Nico Daws was there to make the glove stop. A minute later, it looked like Laval would get another opportunity but Simon Nemec broke up a top-line two-on-one, allowing Utica to get to the room up by one. Shots in the opening frame were 9-8 for Laval.
The Rocket had a bit of a better start in the second but it didn’t matter as Utica was opportunistic. A little over three minutes in, the Comets went in on a two-on-one. Arnie Talvitie opted to take the shot and it was a wise decision as he went far-side on Primeau to double the lead. Seconds later, Laval had a great chance to tie it up with Jayden Struble sending a perfect pass to Nolan Yaremko but Yaremko whiffed on the shot.
Utica got the first power play of the game when Peter Abbandonato was called for goalie interference on Daws. Daws sold the contact but there was legitimate contact. The Comets didn’t do much with the power play and it was actually Laval that had the most pressure with a pair of rush plays, the second of which saw Harvey-Pinard dive to get a pass to Gignac. Gignac didn’t have much room to work with though and could only get a weak backhander on goal.
Laval kept up the pressure but couldn’t hit the net with those opportunities. Just shy of the midway mark, Jesse Ylonen made a nice play to set up Yaremko in the slot. He made contact with the puck this time but the shot went wide. Five minutes later, Dube’s centring feed on a three-on-two just missed.
Moments later, Schueneman had a tough giveaway behind the net. That resulted in Nolan Stevens getting a look in close but he rang it off the post. However, Laval wasn’t able to escape further unscathed.
With a little over a minute left, multiple players were tracking Alexander Holtz behind Laval’s net. The youngster managed to get a pass across to Schmelzer in the slot. As Primeau pushed to get to the top of his crease, Schmelzer sent it past his right pad to make it 3-0, an advantage that went to the buzzer. Shots on goal in the period were 8-5 for the Rocket.
The lines were shuffled for the third and Laval had some quick pressure. 40 seconds in, Abbandonato kept the puck on a quick two-on-one following a Nemec giveaway, forcing a good stop. 20 seconds later, William Trudeau set up Harvey-Pinard for a one-timer but Daws got across for that too.
Then it was Primeau’s turn to make a big stop. At the five-minute mark, Tory Dello overskated the puck in the Utica zone, setting up an odd-man rush the other way. Hawryluk sent a pass over to Halonen but Primeau slid across to make the stop. Less than two minutes later, Daws kicked out a juicy rebound but Yaremko wasn’t able to bury it, hitting the post instead.
It took until nearly 11 minutes into the third for Laval to get its first power play of the game when Hawryluk went off for a punch on Trudeau after the whistle. The Rocket had one key chance when a rebound off Trudeau’s point shot went right to Abbandonato. He beat Daws but not the post.
Down by three, Houle opted for an early goalie pull with nearly five minutes left. Their best chance came with two minutes left when Abbandonato set up Joel Teasdale for a quick snapper with two minutes to go but that’s as close as they were able to get. Meanwhile, Schmelzer was able to add an empty-netter with just over a minute left, sending a shot from centre that went off the post and in. Shots in the final frame were 16-11 for the Rocket.
HW Rocket 3 Stars
1st Star: Pierrick Dube – He didn’t have the best of luck when it came to some of his attempts – a missed pass here, a broken stick there – but he was a spark plug all night. Dube, with his high-energy game, is the type of player whose performance can elevate in big games and we saw it in this one. A nice pro playoff debut for the rookie.
Stats: -2 rating, 5 shots
2nd Star: Peter Abbandonato – This was a tale of two games for him. Early on, he was overmatched on the top line; he’s not the type of player that can keep pace with top players but with the injuries they have, they had to try him. Once he went into his more typical spot down the lineup, he started to make a big impact, especially in the third period with a couple of good chances plus setting Teasdale’s up late.
Stats: -2 rating, 2 PIMS, 1 shot
3rd Star: Anthony Richard – Not his best game by any stretch but he showed some jump in this one and made a really nice play to set up Condotta’s opportunity in the first period. On a night when some of Laval’s other top contributors were quiet, Richard managed to make a bit of an impact.
Stats: -2 rating, 5 shots
Honourable Mention: Nolan Yaremko – Did he miss some opportunities? Yep. But he did well to get into scoring position on each of those chances. Yaremko also had a particularly physical game. As far as a fourth liner goes, if he’s getting some good chances, playing big, and not making mistakes at the defensive end, I’ll take that.
Stats: -1 rating, 0 shots
The series now shifts to Utica for Friday’s game. If a third game is necessary, it will be played in Utica on Saturday.