The playoffs at any level of hockey are a strenuous grind, both physically and mentally on teams. The Laval Rocket entered Game 4 battling through both as they looked to even the series with the Springfield Thunderbirds at Place Bell. Game 3 started out well enough, but a four-goal night from Will Bitten put the Rocket down two games to one when the final horn sounded.
With a lopsided loss hanging over them, and some clear issues in need of fixing, J.-F. Houle made his first big changes of the post-season. Joshua Roy and Peter Abbandonato were scratched in favour of the returning Gabriel Bourque and Devante Smith-Pelly. Houle hoped the veterans could help turn the physical battle and allow the Rocket more space to operate with the puck. Also out for Game 4 was Brandon Gignac who suffered an injury in the previous game, and the Rocket opted to add another defenceman to the mix in the form of Gianni Fairbrother. Cayden Primeau again was entrusted with the start, squaring off with Joel Hofer.
The mood was tense as the game got under way, and it was clearly impacting the Rocket more than the Thunderbirds. Laval misfired on their clears, allowing Springfield to continue creating their chances while Primeau held the fort. However, an egregious turnover off a clearing attempt found its way to Mackenzie MacEachern, and he made no mistake burying his chance to make it a 1-0 game.
Things didn’t get better for the Rocket after that as Nate Schnarr was hit up high without a call, and the Thunderbirds took advantage of him being down and out of the play. In the ensuing chaos around the Rocket’s net, Dakota Joshua was able to shovel the puck into the back of the net to put Springfield up by a pair early in the first period.
The second goal appeared to have been the kick in the pants the Rocket needed as they took control of the game. They pushed for a goal relentlessly, but Hofer did well to turn away every chance thrown his way.
The pressure did draw back-to-back penalties. Danick Martel rang a shot off the crossbar and away from goal during the two-man advantage, and it looked like Springfield was going to escape the period unscathed. But with three seconds left on the clock, a faceoff was won back to Louie Belpedio, who quickly fed it to Xavier Ouellet to fire on net. J.-S. Dea got a small piece of the shot to deflect it past Hofer to brin Laval within a goal with a fraction of a second remaining in the first.
Period two started with the Rocket clearly feeling the momentum shifting in their favour. While Hofer fought off the first few chances, he finally cracked as Cédric Paquette took centre stage. Ouellet sent Paquette into the offensive zone with a leading pass and the veteran blew by his opponent before snapping a shot under Hofer’s glove to tie the game 2-2.
While Laval was controlling the play, the Thunderbirds were right back on their feet, not allowing the Rocket to pull away. But Springfield’s top line drew a holding call against Belpedio with five-and-a-half minutes left to play, setting up a crucial penalty kill for the Rocket again.As they had done all series, the penalty-killers frustrated and locked down the Springfield man advantage.
With Belpedio free from the box, Laval went back to work trying to break the deadlock. As the final seconds ticked away, Dea and Danick Martel nearly pulled off another buzzer-beater, but Hofer got his pad to the post to seal away a last-gasp chance.
Period three started with the Rocket coming out and hounding the Thunderbirds in all three zones as they looked for a third goal. They came close as Alex Belzile and Martel pounced on chances around the net, but Hofer denied them both to keep it a tied game. Then it was Nate Schnarr breaking free to fire a pass into the slot for Jesse Ylönen, but the Finnish winger was just a step ahead of the puck and wasn’t able to get much power on his chance in the crease.
After that point it was non-stop back-and-forth action as the two sides battled for every inch of ice they could find. The Rocket had taken over the role as the more physical side as Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Tobie Paquette-Bisson threw thunderous checks along the boards. Both goaltenders didn’t have many saves to make, but were quick to glove down anything that came their way.
With just under four minutes to play, the officiating crew found its whistles once more, sending Paquette to the box for slashing, and putting the Rocket penalty kill back on the ice in a crucial spot. A wild two minutes followed, marked by two short-handed chances for the Rocket, and then Bitten somehow finding himself on a breakaway that Primeau had to shut the door on in tight.
Thanks to the late heroics from Primeau and the penalty kill, the Rocket again found themselves heading to overtime, hoping to even up the series.
Overtime didn’t start well for them, as the Thunderbirds kept them hemmed in their own zone and appeared primed to score at any moment. Even as Laval scrambled to keep the pucks away from Primeau, they were able to clear them just far enough away to survive the onslaught.
That survival set the stage for the Rocket’s young leader and a pair of crafty vets to steal the show and snatch a win from Springfield. Belzile charged deep into the offensive zone, and when he was behind the net he turned and fired a pass to Sami Niku. The slick defender fed a puck to Rafaël Harvey-Pinard in the slot, and the young forward backed away from net before firing it through Hofer to secure the victory in Game 4.
As the Rocket were celebrating their win, things turned ugly as the Thunderbirds interjected into the celebration, kicking off a huge fracas that included Klim Kostin attacking Lucas Condotta, and Joshua attempting to get at Martel as the officials tried to remove him from the ice.
Here’s the entire clip from AHL TV.
In the middle of everything is Dakota Joshua, who at the end throws a pair of punches at Danick Martel as he’s being forced to leave the ice. pic.twitter.com/t1qUNa8k6R
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) June 11, 2022
In the post-game report it appears that Hofer ignited the entire thing by spearing someone, and there may be more discipline to come for the AHL post-season’s save percentage leader.
Game 4 final score: Laval 3, Springfield 2 (OT)
Series: Tied 2-2
With the tempers clearly well over a boiling point, and the officials seemingly doing little to cool them off, tonight’s Game 5 is sure to be a testy affair.