When a team is stacked like Saint John — which has lost captain Jonathan Huberdeau to a two-game suspension are is barely ruffled by it — it can be tough to find motivation in every single game. The Sea Dogs were likely outplayed in at least twice, perhaps thrice, during their five-game QMJHL semifinal win over the Chicoutimi Saguenéens that concluded with three consecutive overtime results. Now their next step toward repeating as MasterCard Memorial Cup champions involves as President's Cup showdown vs. the Rimouski Océanic, another veteran team whose playoff seeding (seventh) belies their true potential.
However, that Chicoutimi series might have given the Sea Dogs some stress-testing ahead of the final. Their 28-4 playoff record over the past two seasons hasn't been completely smooth. Huberdeau, centre Zack Phillips, Montreal Canadiens-drafted defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and friends did have to dig down to rid themselves of the Sags. They also needed to gut out two double-overtime wins over the grim-minded Gatineau Olympiques in last May's championship series. Add playoff scoring leader Charlie Coyle, the former Boston University centre and some lingering animus from the QMJHL naming Shawinigan the tournament host and the Sea Dogs can be a 20-man migraine waiting to happen.
The three-day break before Game 3 — what is this, the NBA? — probably provides coach Serge Beausoleil's Océanic a boost, since they will be relying more on their top six forwards and two best defence pairings. They have shown a certain competitive vigour throughout this run, but they have probably met their match. The upshot, though, is it's a credit to the competitiveness of the QMJHL that teams seeded fifth or lower have got past the velvet rope and into the finals party in back-to-back years. There's just been a big drop-off from No. 1 to everyone else in that time.
Here is a look at the series, which opens Friday (7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT, Rogers Sportsnet/TVA Sports).
(7) Rimouski Océanic (40-26-2-0, 82 points, beat Val-d'Or 4-0, Blainville-Boisbriand 4-3 and Halifax 4-2) vs. (1) Saint John Sea Dogss (50-15-0-3, 103 pts, beat Cape Breton 4-0, Baie-Comeau 4-0 and Chicoutimi 4-1)
Season series: tied 1-1-0-0, with the home team winning each time. Odds favour: Saint John 77 per cent. Prediction: Saint John in 5.
How they match up
Veteran leadership: The Océanic, as an older team with only three players who are fewer than 18 years old, have had good contributions from their overage trio. Alex Belzile, a 92-point scorer in the regular season, has 21 in the playoffs, while defenders J.P. Mathieu and Pier-Luc Pelletier are both in-season additions that worked out splendidly. All told, they have contibuted 37 points.
Saint John gets more benefit of the doubt based on how they've been tested together, if not so much this spring. Much of their nucleus, give or take Coyle, was part of winning 10 road playoff games in a row during their first playoff run, including two double-OT games in the final. (That streak reaches 12 if one counts the neutral-site Memorial Cup games.) Their overages including goalie Mathieu Corbeil, defenceman Charlies-Olivier Roussel (13 points in as many post-season games) and leading regular-season goal scorer Danick Gauthier. Advantage: Slight edge to Saint John.
Goaltending: Doubts about Corbeil, who's often suffered in comparisons with former Sea Dogs starter Jacob DeSerres, might have been cleared up by his showing in the semifinal. The Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick whose 2.31 average and .914 save percentage are each second-best in the Q playoffs made numerous game-saving stops during Saint John's final two overtime wins over the overachieving Chicoutimi Saguenéens.
Rimouski's Jacob Chouinard might be a question mark, based on his sub-.900 playoffs save percentage. The 19-year-old 'tender has seldom handled heavy shot loads throughout the playoffs and he was hooked early in the first game of the semifinal against Halifax. Advantage: Saint John.
Special teams: You recall the old bromide that teams power-play and penalty kill success rates should at least equal 100 per cent? Saint John's add up to 119.3%, since they led the league in both categories (29.7% power play, 89.7% penalty kill). The combo of their ability and the Gallant-Kelly coaching tandem dictates their strength 5-on-5 would carry over to other situations.
Rimouski's power play is 12th during the playoffs and its penalty killing is eighth. The former stat is surprising with a team with an offensive defenceman such as Jérôme Gauthier-Leduc, whose 15 points in 17 games are second among the league's defenders. Advantage: Saint John.
Why Saint John should win: Ibid., see the previews from the first three rounds. Coyle and Phillips, the so-called Wild bunch, have been the league's best 1-2 combo throughout the playoffs — at least in the 18-and-over division. Washington Capitals prospect Stanislav Galiev, who was limited to 20 regular-season games by a wrist injury that required surgery, has also been in good form since recovering his game fitness. Those three alone could put a lot of teams over the top. Plus there's Huberdeau, Detroit Red Wings second-rounder Tomas Jurco and stable defencemen such as Beaulieu, Roussel, Pierre Durepos and Kevin Gagné. Last but not least, Gallant is one of the best bench coaches in the biz.
How Rimouski could win: It barely bears reaffirming that an Océanic win would qualify as a titanic upset. Their sandpaper guys would have, to be blunt, frustrate and drag Saint John down to its level. Chouinard and each specialty unit would have to find a level heretofore unseen in these playoffs. Stars such as Belzile, Alexandre Mallet and Gauthier-Leduc would also have to kick it up a notch — against a stronger team than what they faced on the road to the final .
A split at Harbour Station this weekend while Huberdeau does his penance is an absolute must for Beausoleil's brigade.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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