Calder Cup: It’s now or never for Rocket

The Thunderbirds have a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals and home field advantage in Springfield in both Game 6 on Monday and Game 7 if needed.

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The Laval Rocket faces the unenviable task of having to win two games if they want to extend the season.

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The Springfield Thunderbirds won 3-2 in overtime against Rocket on Saturday to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Calder Cup Eastern Conference final and will have home field advantage for Game 6 on Monday (19 hours, RDS, 91.9 FM) and for Game 7, if necessary on Wednesday.

While Laval took a 2-0 lead on Saturday after a pair of goals from Rafael Harvey-Pinard, it never felt like the Rocket had the game under control. Goalkeeper Cayden Primeau was the best player on the ice, making 44 saves before James Neal, the most experienced player in the game with 296 NHL goals, scored at 6:35 PM in overtime.

The Thunderbirds were faster than the Rocket 47-27 and former Canadian Charlie Lindgren was firmly in the net. Harvey-Pinard opened the scoring on a power play and his second goal sailed harmlessly through the crease when it slammed in defender Brady Lyle. In extra time, he stopped Jean-Sébastien Dea on a break, and he got lucky when Danick Martel fanned out on a shot into an empty net.

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“It was still a tight game, it could have gone one way or the other,” said captain Xavier Ouellet. “You must have a short memory. Our goal now is to earn a seventh game.”

There was some reason for hope heading into Game 6. The Rocket earned a split in the first two games in Springfield and three of the first five games in the series were settled in overtime.

And the Rocket was in a similar position in the first round of the playoffs when they hit the road and defeated Syracuse in the deciding game of a best-of-five series.

“I think we have a group that is quite resilient,” said coach Jean-François Houle. “We’ve shown it all year round, we’ve always bounced back. You do it game by game. Our guys give everything in every game. We have a good group and we don’t have to make big speeches. The guys know it, they are prepared, they want to win.”

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Primeau, who has stopped 85 of 89 shots in the past two games, will start for Laval and the Thunderbirds will face Joel Hofer, the 21-year-old who backstopped Canada to a gold medal at the 2020 World Junior Championships. He was the standout goalkeeper in the playoffs with a 6-1 record, a 1.80 GAA and a save rate of .955.

Springfield averaged more than six goals per game in the first two rounds of the playoffs and the Rocket defense has halved that. And Springfield’s power play, who used 38 percent of his chances in the first two rounds of the playoffs, has failed on 25 chances against Montreal. Springfield was 0-for-7 on Saturday.

The penalty kill is a source of pride and concern for Houle.

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“It’s been two games in a row, almost three, that we’ve taken six or seven penalties; it’s too much,” Houle said. “We have to control our sticks, we have to control our emotions. Of course we talk about it and we know it’s not easy.”

The winner of the Laval-Springfield series will meet the winner of the Western Conference final between the Chicago Wolves and Stockton Heat. Chicago leads the series 3-2 and is home for Game 6 on Monday.

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