Rocket won’t have chance to continue stellar season in AHL playoffs


Laval compiled a 22-5-3 record in the Canadian division, but won’t get to play other top teams after the league cancelled the post-season.

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They were the best team, by far, in their division. Unfortunately, following a season for the ages, the Laval Rocket won’t get the opportunity to see how it might have fared against the rest of the American Hockey League.

“The playoffs would have been great, I get it,” head coach Joël Bouchard said. “For us to have 36 games, that’s a lot. It’s half a season. In a pandemic. I’m happy and excited to have that.”

The AHL announced on April 29 there would be no traditional playoffs because of the league’s COVID-19 protocol. That means, for a second consecutive season, the Calder Cup won’t be awarded. Only in the Pacific Division — one of five divisions the league adopted this season after restructuring based on geography and border restrictions — will a post-season tournament be conducted to determine a division champion.

The Rocket, operating out of a five-team Canadian division, took a remarkable 22-5-3 record  — a league-high .783 winning percentage — into Friday night’s home game against Belleville. Laval clinched the division and the Frank Mathers Trophy earlier this week, during an overtime loss against Toronto, the one point garnered giving it a 12-point lead over Manitoba with six games left.

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The Rocket was 9-3-2 at the Bell Centre; an even more impressive 13-2-1 on the road. During an eight-game road trip at the end of March, the team went 7-0-1 against Stockton, playing out of Calgary, and the Moose, sweeping its four-game series against the Heat.

Laval’s longest losing streak this season was two games, one in overtime. Its longest winning streak was six games. The team just concluded an 18-game stretch during which it went an incredible 16-1-1.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to say we were so much more superior,” said Bouchard, who should generate some NHL attention as jobs become available this summer. “Winning is hard. We’ve been winning and it seems like people are taking it for granted (but) there are no easy games.

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“If winning was easy, every team would do it. Every athlete would win.”

Bouchard started the season with 35 players; so many, he had to divide the group and practise twice daily in the month of preparation he was accorded. Now, with players being recalled and following a series of season-ending injuries to Ryan Poehling, Joe Blandisi, Michael Pezzetta and Joël Teasdale, he has only 11 healthy forwards at his disposal.

Bouchard and the players knew the possibility existed of the season ending May 17 against Toronto. When that option became reality last week, Bouchard said he didn’t address the team. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised with how well they practised, all things considered.

“It sucks, but at the same time, we’ve taken advantage of this opportunity to play,” said forward Jordan Weal. “At the end of the day, we got a season in … half a season and played some games. I wanted to play. You’re a hockey player; you want to play. Getting the chance to play with these guys was a lot of fun. To have success was just a bonus.”

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Weal, 29, is more fortunate and financially stable than many of his teammates, having signed a two-year, one-way US$2.8-million contract in April 2019. While he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent, it also made the disappointment of being assigned to the minors easier to digest for Weal, with 218 NHL games on his resumé, including 49 with the Canadiens last season.

While Weal said he has contemplated his future, he also wants to complete the season on a strong note. He has six goals and 22 points through 28 games.

“Winning’s fun,” said Weal, who played on a Calder Cup team with Manchester in 2015. “The cohesion we have in the room makes it better. It’s fun to come to the rink.”

While Bouchard credited the players for the success, it all started with him and his vision. He’s intense and demanding, wanting to bring the best out of everyone. But it wouldn’t have been possible had the players not bought in, had the proper attitude, listened to and believed in what he was preaching. Bouchard emphasized performance, knowing the wins would come if the players executed.

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Bouchard has no concerns about motivation, and doesn’t believe the players will simply go through the motions in the remaining games, knowing they’ve reached their original mandate.

“I want lots of the same but even better,” he said. “Teams are waiting for us. They’re going to come hard at us. Our job’s to be ready. That’s our challenge. When you’re winning you want to keep that going.”

hzurkowsky@postmedia.com

twitter.com/HerbZurkowsky1

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