Thu Apr 19 11:19pm EDT
The Saint John Sea Dogs have all sorts of connections with their next challenger even though they only play three times a year.
The Sea Dogs strategically chose their Oct. 29 game against the Chicoutimi Saguenéens to raise their MasterCard Memorial Cup banner and so Sea Dogs-turned-Sags Alexandre Beauregard and Gabriel Bourret could put on their old jerseys and receive their rings with their ex-teammates. The defending champions were also the opposition on March 9 when Beauregard, who scored the President's Cup-winning goal last May, made his chill-bump-raising return to Chicoutimi's lineup after being diagnosed and treated for cancer of the thyroid gland.
That makes for good media fodder. So does the fact Chicoutimi's leading playoff scorers are Ottawa Senators-drafted centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau and overage Christian Ouellet, who gave Saint John fits in last year's final when they were with the Gatineau Olympiques. The cold, hard reality, though is that the Sea Dogs and their four NHL first-round picks, including superstar Jonathan Huberdeau, are locked and loaded. Meantime, through 2 through 5 seeds are all out of the hunt. So if Saint John brings its A-game, it should steamroll through Chicoutimi and the Halifax-Rimouski winner in the final.
"It's going to be important to play our way of playing," says Sea Dogs defenceman Charles-Olivier Roussel, who was Saint John's big addition in September after the NHL's Nashville Predators assigned him to junior.
"I think if we play the way we're capable of, there's no team that can beat us in this league. So the main focus is on us, to be honest with you. They have a pretty good team, but we'll try to keep it simple and bring a lot of speed, especially on the big [Olympic-sized] ice they have in Chicoutimi."
Shawinigan being out means the Sea Dogs have to win the President's Cup to punch their ticket for 'the road to Shawi' and a chance at being the first QMJHL team since the 1980-81 Cornwall Royals to win consecutive Memorial Cups. If Shawinigan was still alive, there was the chance Saint John could have qualified by reaching the final and losing to the Cataractes.
"You always want to get into the Memorial Cup as champions," says Roussel, who began his QMJHL career with the Cataractes. "Losing in the final and then going is never as good as going when you win. Shawi is out, so now we have to win, which was our main goal all along."
The Gerard Gallant-coached Sea Dogs became the first team in league history to have three consecutive 50-win seasons, hitting that milestone on the nose. That was actually an eight-win drop from a year ago, but injuries and NHL training camp absences largely accounted for it. Since adding two-time U.S. world junior forward Charlie Coyle in January after he left Boston University, they've been nearly unstoppable offensively. Winning one championship has also renewed their hunger to finish the job the season, especially for a handful of new faces.
"When you see that happen, I felt like it was extra motivation for me to see those banners getting raised," Roussel says. "I want to be one of the reasons they raise the next banners at Harbour Station."
Here is a look at the QMJHL semifinal series, which each begin on Friday.
(6) Halifax Mooseheads (39-22-2-5, 85 points, beat Moncton 4-0 & Quebec 4-3) vs. (7) Rimouski Océanic (40-26-2-0, 82 pts, beat Val-d'Or 4-0 & Blainville-Boisbriand 4-3)
Season series: Halifax 2-0-1-0. Odds favour: Rimouskj 54 per cent. Format: 2-3-2. Prediction: Halifax in 7.
How they match up
Veteran leadership: Mooseheads captain Cameron Critchlow (14 points in 11 playoff games) earned the nickname Crutchlow after his four-goal tour de force in Game 7 at Quebec on Tuesday. Critchlow has a unique hockey C.V., having worn the C for a league semifinalist two seasons in a row since he also did so for the defunct Lewiston Maineiacs last season. Halifax is also getting steady production from another overage forward, Vancouver Canucks puck Alexandre Grenier (11 in 11 games), while 212-pound winger Travis Randell supplies grit, which is a requirement for overage forwards with that surname.
Rimouski's 20-year-olds have been intergral to their run. There were some furrowed brows when the mid-pack team anted up for Jean-Philippe Mathieu at mid-season, but he's been steady on the blue line. Fellow blueliner Pier-Luc Pelletier has been a rock on the back end, while Alex Belzile (16 points in playoffs) is perhaps Rimouski's most prolific playmaker. Advantage: Halifax.
Goaltending: Halifax goalie Zachary Fucale's next appearance will be his 70th this season. That's only three fewer appearances than the OHL's famed workhorse, London's Michael Houser. And Fucale won't turn 17 until May 28, the day after the Memorial Cup final. The rookie has cut more than three-quarters of a goal off his regular-season average (2.38 so far in playoffs compared to 3.16 during the season) while gaining more confidence. Halifax getting all of its defenceman healthy has had a lot to do with it, of course.
Stats don't tell the whole story, but Rimouski's Jacob Chouinard has the poorest rate stats of the four active playoff starters with a 3.47 average and .875 save percentage. Advantage: Halifax.
Special teams: Buffalo Sabres pick Jérôme Gauthier-Leduc runs a very effective Rimouski power play which was second in the league during the regular season at 26.1 per cent. Halifax's penalty killing has been good all season (79.4% in the regular season and 80%) in the playoffs. One would having high-end talent such as rookie phenoms Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin would give Halifax a lethal power play of its own, but has scored fewer than 20% of the time (12-for-61) in the post-season. They did go 2-for-3 in the decisive win over Quebec. Rimouski is an average penalty-killing team (78.1 in regular season) Advantage: Rimouski.
Why Halifax should win: It is difficult not to get sucked into the bubbling Moosemania in the Nova Scotia capital after the way MacKinnon, Critchlow, Drouin, Fucale and friends fought back from a 3-0 deficit to down Quebec. They have taken on the vibe of being a team of destiny, plus rookie coach Dominique Ducharme has instituted a style of play that allows them to be high-tempo while still minding the store in their own zone. It probably hasn't got a ton of play, but Ducharme has big-game bench experience at the Junior A level, where's he taken to a team to the RBC Cup national tournament. Halifax's combo of star power and depth should help it get by.
How Rimouski could win: The Océanic like to bang and crash, which gives them the ability to frustrate opponents and put their vaunted power play to work. That is a huge concern for Halifax. They may also have the best defenceman in this matchup with Gauthier-Leduc, the Buffalo Sabres pick who attended the final selection camp for Canada's national junior team in December. If the magnitude of the moment gets to a relatively young Mooseheads team — not that one should expect it to — the Océanic could pounce and go their first final in 2005 when they had the future NHL star from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
(1) Saint John Sea Dogs (50-15-0-3, 103 pts, beat Cape Breton 4-0 & Baie-Comeau 4-0) vs. (8) Chicoutimi Saguenéens (35-24-3-6, 79 pts, beat Acadie-Bathurst 4-2 and Shawinigan 4-3)
Season series: Chicoutimi 2-1-0-0 (one shootout win). Odds favour: Saint John 80%. Format: 2-2-1-1-1. Prediction: Saint John in 5.
How they match up
Veteran leadership: Thirteen of the 15 Sea Dogs who have appeared in every playoff game this spring were also part of last year's championship(s) run. The other two are Coyle, who owns a world junior championship medal (bronze in 2011 with Team USA) and Roussel, whom the Nashville Predators have under contract. In other words, there is very little that should surprise Saint John by this point.
This is Chicoutimi's first trip to the semifinal in some time, so avoiding the just-happy-to-be-here feeling will be important. They don't lack for playoff experience. Five of the Sags were in the QMJHL final last season, since Beauregard and Bourret helped Saint John win the President's Cup who had the high-scoring Ouellet and Pageau and defenceman Mathieu Gagnon. Advantage: Saint John.
Goaltending: The Saguenéens would not have got by Shawinigan without Chris Gibson (2.88 goals-against average, .908 save percentage). The Los Angeles Kings second-round pick got a bailout when his team won a 7-6 shootout in the opener, but Gibson stopped 91-of-94 shots in the Sags' last three victories over the Memorial Cup hosts. He's had more to do in the playoffs and is more critical to his team's chances.
Saint John's Mathieu Corbeil (2.25 average, .910 save percentage in the playoffs) hasn't exactly had to steal games during the first two rounds. Perhaps it's a function of Saint John's utter dominance that there's questions about whether their goaltender is a possible Achilles heel. The 6-foot-5 Corbeil is prone to the odd off night, but by Cam Charron's calculation, he has given the Sea Dogs the same slightly above league average goaltending that former starter Jacob DeSerres did last season. Ultimately, the Sags rate a slight edge between the pipes. Advantage: Chicoutimi.
Special teams: With all their ability, it's not shocking the Sea Dogs are first during the playoffs on the power play (32.6%) and penalty killing (86.5%). Chicoutimi has been sharp on the PK (83.9%) but is just 11th on the power play (20.8%). Advantage: Saint John.
Why Saint John should win: It's pick-your-poison for Sea Dogs opponents. How many teams have would have a No. 3 overall NHL pick such as Jonathan Huberdeau as their fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs? Saint John can just attack and waves with the likes of Minnesota Wild prospects Coyle and Zack Phillips, Detroit Red Wings second-rounder Tomas Jurco, recent Tampa Bay Lightning signing Danick Gauthier and Washington Capitals third-rounder Stanislav Galiev, a third-liner who would be a first-liner in many major junior precincts. Gallant is among the best bench coaches in junior and has the horses up front, on defence and in goal.
How Chicoutimi could win: It is an impossibly tall order for coach Marc-Étienne Hubert's Saguenéens. They are much better than that 8 seed would indicate, especially with forwards such as Pageau, two-time 30-goal scorer Guillaume Asselin (team-high 16 playoff points) and NHL draft prospect Charles Hudon. There are just too many ifs — if Saint John runs into injuries, if Corbeil has a meltdown, etc. — to think it could happen.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.