CHL Playoff Preview, Part 5
by Bob Davis(NHL)
Posted on April 1, 2006, 4:05 PM
NOTE: This column was originally posted in the RCC on Wednesday, March 29th.
The battle for the 2006 Memorial Cup has begun in Canada. Three junior hockey leagues each run through a gruelling, 70+ game season; then host a four-round playoff system to crown 3 league champions. The respective league champions then travel out to a designated city to compete against the host team to crown the annual national junior champion. This year, the champions from the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will compete against Moncton in the New Brunswick city for the Memorial Cup.
The Memorial Cup is the biggest stage for these young prospects to showcase their talents to potential NHL teams. Some of these players will become household names in the NHL; and a select few will win the Stanley Cup. Over the next few days, I will introduce you to some of the players in each of the three leagues who are hoping to jumpstart their NHL careers by leading their teams to the Memorial Cup Final. Iíll also put my psychic abilities to the test and put my predictions out for each of the first round series.
Part 1: The WHL Eastern Conference.
Part 2: The WHL Western Conference.
Part 3: The OHL Eastern Conference.
Part 4: The OHL Western Conference.
QUEBEC MAJOR JUNIOR HOCKEY LEAGUE.
In the 18-team QMJHL, the top 9 (out of 10) teams in the Western conference qualify for the playoffs; as do the top 7 teams in the 8-team Eastern Conference. The 9th place team is transferred over to the Eastern Conference, and is ranked in the East based on the number of points it earned in the regular season.
Series A: Moncton Wildcats vs. Victoriaville Tigres
As the host team for the 2006 Memorial Cup, the Wildcats could have breezed through this season, knowing that they had a guaranteed shot at the national championship waiting for them. Rather than resting on that guarantee, Moncton enjoyed a fantastic season, celebrating 52 wins against only 15 defeats for a league best 107 points on the season. On the other side of the fence, the Tigres struggled this season, dropping 42 games to finish the season in 9th place in the Western Conference with 54 points.
Leading the way for Les Tigres is 19 year old Alexandre Imbeault. The 6í1, 175lb winger had a team high 51 assists and 78 points in 67 games. Imbeault, a Montreal native, was acquired in 2004 from the Quebec Ramparts in exchange for a pair of draft picks.
Les Tigres have a big question mark in net. All 4 of the goaltenders employed by Victoriaville finished the season with less than stellar records; the best of the three remaining goalies on the team, Jean Christophe Blanchard, would up with 8 wins in 22 appearances and posted a 4.68 goals against average.
Coach Ted Nolan has the Wildcats running on all cylinders heading into the post season. The former Buffalo Sabres coach led the Cats into the playoffs with 6 straight wins, thanks in large part to the stellar play of the Edmonton Oilersí 7th round pick in the 2004 Entry Draft, Stephane Goulet. The 6í3, 200lb left winger put up career numbers, potting 51 goals and 93 points in 67 games for Moncton this season. Nolan said his teamís style is to work hard, forecheck aggressively, and take the physical play to their opposition.
Nolanís team broke away from that style in game 1 of the series, as Victoriaville skated away with a 4-2 victory. The coach had his team back on the same page for game 2, and Moncton took charge of this game early with an 8-2 thumping of the Tigres. Earlier tonight in game 3, Moncton continued their domination, pounding 7 goals behind Victoriavilleís Blanchard en route to a 10-4 drubbing. Les Tigres are going to need better goaltending in this series to stand a chance, but their netminders arenít likely to deliver.
PREDICTION: Moncton thrashes Victoriaville 4 games to 1.
Series B: Acadie-Bathurst Titan vs. P.E.I. Rocket
Les Titan finished second in a competitive Eastern Conference, rounding out the season with 43 wins and 91 points. Acadie-Bathurst finished strong this year, winning 7 of their last 10 regular season contests. Meanwhile, the Rocket locked up a playoff spot early in the season, thanks to a relatively poor season from St. John. P.E.I. split their final 10 games of the season to wind up with 25 wins and 54 points in 70 games.
Rookie sensation Mathieu Perreault had a spectacular season for Les Titan. The 18-year-old centre from Drummondville posted 34 assists and 52 points in 62 games for Acadie-Bathurst. The left-hander took just 42 minutes in penalties in his rookie year. If the young star doesnít get drafted in 2006, heíll have another full season to impress scouts before he becomes an undrafted free agent after the 2007 draft.
On the other side of the ice, the Rocket have a stellar offensive defenceman on their roster. Marc-Andre Gragnani, Buffaloís 3rd round draft pick in the 2005 draft, potted 71 points in 62 games for the Rocket. The 19-year-old leftie from Ile Bizard, Quebec, possesses the ability to know when to pinch in the offensive zone, and is willing to sacrifice his own body to produce a scoring opportunity for the team.
P.E.I. struck first in this series, nailing down a 2-0 victory in game 1. Acadie-Bathurst struck back in game 2, as Perreault put up a 3-point effort in a 6-5 overtime win to square the series at 1 game apiece. However, Gragnani countered Perreaultís 3-point night with 3 assists in game 3, and the Rocket skated away with a 5-4 overtime win tonight. The team from the Island is playing much better than a team that lost 38 games in regulation time; if they can keep up this play, they will find themselves in round 2.
PREDICTION: P.E.I. eliminates Acadie-Bathurst in 7 games.
Series C: Cape Breton Screaming Eagles vs. St. Johnís Fog Devils
Cape Breton turned around and backed into the 2006 playoffs, dropping their last 3 games to finish with 40 wins and 87 points on the season. The Eagles had a chance to finish second in the conference with wins in their final games. Meanwhile, the Fog Devils used their final 10 games to build momentum heading into the post-season, winning 7 of those en route to a 66 point season.
Eaglesí right winger Kevin Asselin hopes to turn his teamís late season slump into first round success. The 20-year-old posted career best totals of 44 goals and 88 points to lead the Eagles in scoring. The St-Hyacinthe, Quebec native scored 21 power play goals and 9 game-winners in 67 games with the team. In 5 seasons with the Eagles, Asselin posted 247 career points in 312 games.
The Fog Devils will turn to left winger Oscar Sundh for a shot at round 2. The Swedish-born 19-year-old Sundh spent time in the Swedish Elite league over the last 2 years before coming to St. Johnís this season. In 54 games with the QMJHL club, Sundh posted 46 assists and 63 points to lead the Devils. The 6í2, 192lb winger hopes that he can lead the Devils past the Eagles and advance towards a Memorial Cup berth.
In game 1 of this series, Asselin took matters into his own hands in the third period, scoring the game winner to give the Screaming Eagles a 3-2 victory. Game 2 saw the Fog Devils rebound, taking a 2-1 victory and squaring the series at 1 game apiece heading to St. Johnís. Game 3, scheduled for last night, was postponed due to a winter storm that battered the Maritime provinces, as Cape Breton was unable to make the trek safely into Newfoundland. If the Eagles can travel today, the game will happen tonight. However, situations like this have been the deciding factor in so many series over the years, and St. Johnís will have a decided advantage in the rest of this series.
PREDICTION: St. Johnís over Cape Breton in 6.
Series D: Lewiston MAINEiacs vs. Halifax Mooseheads
The only American team in the Quebec league, the MAINEiacs (thatís how they actually spell it) finished 4th in the East with 36 wins and 83 points on the season. Lewiston will take a 4 game winning streak into the post-season. Their opposition, the Mooseheads, lost a lot of steam heading into the second season, losing their last 7 games to drop 9 points behind Lewiston for home ice advantage in this series.
The MAINEiacs have a talented centre as their leading scorer. The Montreal Canadiensí 5th round pick in the 2005 draft, Mathieu Aubin, posted team-high totals of 47 goals and 56 assists in 70 games with Lewiston. The 19-year-old Aubin missed the cut-off for the 2004 draft by just 3 days; after missing 20 regular season games in 04-05 due to injury, Aubin needed a strong playoff campaign in 2005 to elevate his status in the eyes of most scouts. The 190lb centre delivered, scoring 9 points in the teamís 8 playoff games in 2005.
Lewistonís major strength will be in the net. Goaltender Jonathon Bernier, ranked first among goaltenders by the International Scouting Service at the mid-season mark, posted 27 wins in 54 games with the MAINEiacs. The 17-year-old from Laval, Quebec, blanked opposing teams twice through the season en route to posting a 2.70 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. Look for Bernier to go early in the first round as a number of NHL clubs will be looking for a quality goaltender.
David Brine will be matched up with Aubin at centre for most of this series. The 21-year-old Moosehead led the team with 66 assists and 100 points in 70 games for Halifax, and posted a career-best total of 34 goals. The Truro, Nova Scotia native also averaged a point per game in the Mooseheadsí playoff run in 2005. Halifax will need a similar effort from Brine to advance past their American opponents.
In game 1 at Lewiston, Brine assisted on the opening goal of the game to help Halifax to a 4-1 victory. In game 2, Bernier stopped all 29 shots faced in a 1-0 Lewiston victory. Back in Halifax for game 3, Aubin scored twice and added an assist as Lewiston took a 2-1 series lead with a 4-1 win. Halifax will need Brine to step up his play if they have any hope of defeating Bernier and the MAINEiacs; but Bernier is going to be the key for Lewiston to advance.
PREDICTION: Lewiston defeats Halifax in 6 games.
In Part 6, the QMJHL Western Conference will go under the spotlight. Sidney Crosby led his Rimouski Oceanic to the Memorial Cup final in 2005, where the Quebec champions were dominated from start to finish by London. With Crosby gone, the Oceanic struggled to a 10th place finish, meaning the Quebec League will see a new champion. Will that champion come from the Western Conference?
In Part 7, Iíll take a look past round 1 at which teams are likely to contend for the Memorial Cup in Moncton. Iíll also wrap up by looking at some of the talents on non-playoff teams that could make a major impact in the NHL in the not-too-distant future.