For the first time in three seasons, the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate won’t be playing post-season hockey.

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The Laval Rocket season began with a loss at home more than six months ago. And on Saturday night at Place Bell, it ended with another defeat against Belleville, 24 hours after being eliminated from AHL playoff contention by the same team.

In the weeks ahead, much consideration will be directed towards why this season ended prematurely. Unlike the parent Canadiens, who missed the playoffs for a third successive season, their minor-league affiliate isn’t accustomed to being on the outside looking in come late April.

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This marks the first time in three seasons under head coach Jean-François Houle that Laval has failed to qualify, and the first time in five years that elimination has occurred before the end of the schedule. The disappointment on Houle’s face was evident following the season-ending 2-1 defeat.

“Every team wants to make the playoffs,” Houle said. “It was a big disappointment for our players (Friday) night. It was tough to get going today after you’re disappointed like that. But they battled. They came to work in front of their fans. It was a hard game to play.”

The Rocket required two wins in regulation against Belleville, beginning Friday on the road, but the post-season dream ended with a 3-2 defeat. Laval squandered a 2-0 lead, the Senators scored twice in the third period’s final six minutes, including an empty-net goal at 19:59.

Saturday’s game followed an eerily similar scenario, the Rocket taking a 1-0 lead into the third period, only to see the visitors score twice within 122 seconds, the winning goal coming off the power-play. Laval deserved a better fate, outshooting Belleville 40-23, but failed to capitalize on numerous opportunities — including the power-play, which went 0-for-3.

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“This definitely sucks, the way it ended,” said centre Lucas Condotta, a three-year Rocket veteran. “We controlled our own destiny there for a bit and couldn’t get it done.

“We started (the season) off terribly. We were (battling) from behind a lot of the year, pushing, pushing, pushing to break through. We gave ourselves a chance to get into the playoffs. Looking at us from the start, that never was a possibility the way it started. I’m proud of the guys for that. We just came up short.”

Houle knew the odds were stacked against him this season, inheriting one of the AHL’s youngest teams. Predictably, there were some early growing pains.

It began with a four-game homestand, during which the Rocket went 0-3-1. Following a win in its fifth game, Laval lost the next four, its 1-6-1 record an early hole from which it would be difficult to escape. There were far too many goals allowed, teams taking advantage of weak goaltending and defensive miscues, although offensively the forwards carried their weight.

But the team gradually improved and there were peaks in the Rocket’s season. The team won five straight at one point in January and excelled through March, winning eight of 10, making the playoffs appear realistic. But down the stretch, during the most critical juncture, the Rocket again came up short, winning only four of its final 10. Not even the late additions of defencemen Jayden Struble, Justin Barron and Logan Mailloux along with forward Joshua Roy from the Canadiens for the final two games were enough.

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“It was a tough start but we battled all year,” said captain Gabriel Bourque, who set a franchise record on Friday with his 175th game as a Rocket. “It’s hard.

“From my standpoint it was the start of the season; the first half was real hard. The second half we did a good job and played more as a team. The last few years we came through with an older group. But the last 10 games we were playing with (numerous) rookies. You could see on the ice the difference. It’s hard with an inexperienced team. It’s hard to come back, especially after one or two quick goals. You’re more likely to give up than to keep pushing.”

The Canadiens, as an organization, have stressed development over results at the AHL level — a trend that undoubtedly will continue given the plethora of talent in the system. Friday night, in the biggest game of the season, the Rocket dressed 10 rookies, a rarity at this level. And that’s something management should consider when discussing the future of Houle, who’s on an expiring contract but got the most he could from this group.

“We made a push after Christmas and were coming along pretty good,” Houle said. “We just fell short. Like any other team trying to make pushes, we had to win quite a bit at the end. We’re a young team. It’s tough in this league when you have a young team, and we’re going to be young again next year. We might see something similar. As long as our players are improving, that’s a good thing.”

The Rocket (33-31-8) finished last in the North Division. Ironically, the team won as many games as the previous season (33-29-10), when it finished fifth, garnering the division’s final playoff berth; the margin of error was that thin.

What hasn’t changed through the Rocket’s seven-year run in Laval is the team’s popularity. With 17 sellouts this season at its 10,243-seat venue, the Rocket placed third overall in league attendance, with a total of 333,222 spectators (9,256 average).

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