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LAVAL, Que. — The Montreal Canadiens could not be farther away from the NHL post-season, but their American Hockey League affiliate is gearing up to host playoff games in nearby Laval for the first time.
The Laval Rocket will take on the Syracuse Crunch, the Tampa Bay Lightning's AHL affiliate, in the North Division semifinals after earning a first-round bye in the Calder Cup playoffs.
After a four-game winless skid, Laval (39-26-7) capped off the 2021-22 campaign with two straight wins, including a 5-1 victory over the Crunch in its season finale that moved the Rocket past Belleville into third place in the North.
The chance to host playoff games is the long-awaited payoff for two seasons of success. The Rocket were Canadian division champions in the 2020-21 season, but while a banner hangs from the Place Bell rafters, the team couldn’t play post-season games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We're very excited about the opportunity. It's the first time for the Laval Rocket organization that we’re in the playoffs,” said forward Rafael Harvey-Pinard. “Last year we had a great year, we wanted to be in the playoffs but we didn’t have the chance.
"So this year is a great opportunity for us and we're going to be ready to give 100 per cent for the fans, they deserve it.”
Harvey-Pinard had a breakout year leading the team in points in his sophomore AHL season with 21 goals and 35 assists in 69 games. The 23-year-old also had his first taste of the big league with the Canadiens, scoring his first NHL goal over a four-game stint.
With the Habs in reset mode, a long AHL playoff run could be a good sales pitch for Rocket players ahead of the Canadiens' training camp next season.
"For the young guys, for next year, to maybe make the big club and the older guys that don't have contracts for them to showcase themselves," said Rocket coach Jean-Francois Houle. "The further you go on in the Calder Cup playoffs the more teams in the NHL will be looking at you and that’s a better opportunity for your future."
The Calder Cup playoffs began Monday with a first round consisting of seven best-of-three series to determine which teams will advance to the division semifinals, joining the nine teams that earned byes.
The division semifinals and finals will increase to a best-of-five series.
The conference finals and Calder Cup final will be best-of-seven matchups.
The Manitoba Moose earned a bye to the Central Division semifinals, while Belleville and Abbotsford will have to play first-round matchups.
The Toronto Marlies are the only Canadian AHL team on the outside of the post-season. The Marlies needed a point in their regular-season finale Saturday against the Senators to book a spot, but lost 5-2 in Belleville.
Here's a look at the other three series with Canadian teams:
BELLEVILLE SENATORS VS. ROCHESTER AMERICANS
The Senators' season-ending win over Toronto gave Rochester a last-minute clinch of a playoff berth. The Buffalo Sabres' AHL affiliate sent the Senators an ice cream cake as a good luck charm before the game but will now take on the B-Sens in the North Division first round. Rochester will host game one on Wednesday, then the series will move to Belleville for games two and three. The winners will take on the Utica Comets in the division semifinals.
The Americans have AHL Rookie of the Year Jack Quinn in their ranks, who had 61 points (26 goals, 35 assists) in only 45 games. The Senators will get reinforcements from the NHL heading into the playoffs including forward Parker Kelly who played 41 games for Ottawa this season.
Head coach Troy Mann said the Senators will bank on a mix of young talent like Kelly and goaltender Filip Gustavsson and veteran leadership like Logan Shaw.
“As much as (Shaw) has been in Ottawa and played games in the NHL, when you’re a veteran guy and you play at this level it’s about the Calder Cup,” Mann said. “You win with good prospects and good veterans. If you combine the two and if they’re playing the right way and they play within your structure, you have a chance to win.”
ABBOTSFORD CANUCKS VS. BAKERSFIELD CONDORS
The Abbotsford Canucks will have a Pacific Division first round showdown with the Bakersfield Condors, the Edmonton Oilers AHL affiliate. All three games, if necessary, will be held in Bakersfield starting Tuesday.
The Canucks were flying high with a nine-game winning streak in April but ended their season with back-to-back crushing losses to the Moose. The Canucks can count on winger Sheldon Rempal, who ranked eighth in the AHL in scoring with 69 points (33 goals, 36 assists) in 55 games.
“We’re going to need to be (good), it’s the playoffs in the American Hockey League. It’s not easy,” said Canucks coach Trent Cull. “It steps, it ramps up a lot more than the regular season so we need to be as good as we can possibly be."
MANITOBA MOOSE VS. MILWAUKEE ADMIRALS
The Moose have been in playoff mode for quite some time after finishing second in a tough Central Division, which included the league-leading Chicago Wolves. They will have home ice advantage against the Milwaukee Admirals, the Nashville Predators' affiliate, in the Central Division semifinals.
Manitoba added two European Jets prospects late in the season. Winger Daniel Thorgesson, a 2020 second-round pick, had two goals and one assist in his first four games on North American ice. Centreman Henri Nikkanen, a fourth-round selection in 2019, also joined ahead of the post-season.
“They skate well, they can both shoot the puck, they get into traffic areas,” Moose coach Mark Morrison said of the new additions. “Things are happening a lot quicker for them in a smaller rink with lots of traffic and they move the puck pretty quick so they’re doing well.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2022.
Tristan D'Amours, The Canadian Press