The 2002-2003 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League regular season is well underway. The Halifax Mooseheads, gazing upon the regular season schedule upon its release, must have seen the first two weeks of the season and thought that their favourable schedule would lead to an incredibly fast start. Two games against perennial league doormats for the past two seasons, the Moncton Wildcats, as well as games against the rebuilding Rimouski Oceanic and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, in their comfortable confines of the Halifax Metro Centre should have been just what the doctor ordered, however after the first five games, the Mooseheads sit in third place in the Maritime Division.
It is, of course, far too early to be worried, as the season is barely two weeks old, and the Mooseheads had been without two key components of this years roster. Import defenseman, and Boston Bruins prospect, Milan Jurcina remains with the Bruins, having survived the first couple rounds of cuts, remaining on the roster, which GM Mike O’Connell has whittled down to 32 players. Also, overaged sniper Thatcher Bell, originally drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 2000, was a free-agent invitee to the Detroit Red Wings training camp, before being returned to the Mooseheads in their second round of cuts. Bell’s presence was immediately felt upon return to the Mooseheads, with Bell notching five points in his first two games, while Jurcina, GM O’Connell has said, will be returned to the Mooseheads soon (possibly after a neutral-site exhibition game in Halifax between the Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens).
The Halifax defence has not missed the Slovak’s presence, as defence has been the Mooseheads strong point in this early season. The Mooseheads unit, headed up by overager Pat Gilbert, and 17-year-old sophomore Alexandre Picard have been able to shut down opposing forwards, allowing only nine goals and minimal shots in their first five games. Jurcina’s return will only make this already strong unit even stronger.
The Mooseheads produced a modest 2-2-1 record in their first five games.
Game 1: Friday, September 13: Halifax 2, Rimouski 0:
The first game of the season proved to be a successful one for the hometown Mooseheads, as they shut out rival Rimouski 2-0. 17-year-old netminder Jonathan Boutin faced few shots for the relatively easy shutout. Overage defenseman Pat Gilbert opened the scoring early in the first, and sophomore Francois-Pierre Guenette provided the insurance marker.
Game 2: Saturday, September 14: Moncton 2, Halifax 1:
Halifax looked to ride the wave of success that began in the home opener the night before, and seemed to be on the right track when stay-at-home defenseman Randy Upshall opened the scoring early in the first. However, Moncton forward, and 2003 eligible Steve Bernier retorted with two goals in roughly a minute, beating Mooseheads goaltender Michael Dilorenzo, and the Wildcats were able to coast the rest of the way, thanks in large part to a stellar goaltending performance by 17-year-old netminder Corey Crawford.
Game 3: Wednesday, September 18: Cape Breton 2, Halifax 1:
Halifax looked to bounce back from a mediocre performance against the Moncton Wildcats earlier in the week, when they faced their provincial rivals, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, yet it was not to be. Top goaltending prospect Marc-Andre Fleury stole the show, turning away 42 of 43 shots in a magnificent performance for the Eagles, whilst out-dueling Halifax goaltender Jonathan Boutin for the win. Jean-Francois Cyr notched the only goal for the Mooseheads, while super sophomore Stephen Dixon and overager Stuart Macrae scored for the visitors.
Game 4: Friday, September 20: Halifax 4, Acadie-Bathurst 4:
Halifax looked to end their early-season slide against the highly ranked Acadie-Bathurst Titan. While four-year man Bruce Gillis played his final game for the team against Cape Breton, new arrival Thatcher Bell laced up the blades for his new team, after having spent time as a free-agent invitee at the Detroit Red Wings camp. Bell did not waste much time, as he notched a goal early in the second period for the Mooseheads. AJ MacLean would tie the game shortly thereafter, before the Mooseheads fell behind. Derrick Kent would score in the third, and Jean-Francois Cyr would notch his second goal of the season late in regulation, to send the game to overtime. Extra time would not provide a winner, and the game ended in a tie. Bathurst’s goals were scored by overage forward Olivier Filion, Patrice Bergeron, Thomas Beauregard, and Remi Bergeron.
Game 5: Sunday, September 22: Halifax 3, Moncton 1:
After a promising performance two nights before, the Mooseheads looked to put their three game winless streak to an end in Moncton. Jonathan Boutin was between the pipes for his third start of the season, and Moncton would get to him early, as overage forward Yannick Searles put the puck past him for the early 1-0 lead. Fresh from the Detroit Red Wings camp, overager Thatcher Bell would notch his second goal in as many games near the end of the first period to tie the game. His line mate, and Mooseheads captain, Brandon Benedict would net his first of the season early in the third period past Moncton netminder Corey Crawford. Bell would pick up his second of the game as insurance, as the Mooseheads coasted the rest of the way to a 3-1 victory.
|Cyr, Jean-Francois Cyr||5||2||2||4||2|
The first line for the Mooseheads, featuring overagers Thatcher Bell, Brandon Benedict, as well as undrafted 19-year-old winger Jean-Francois Cyr, were able to combine for 6 goals and 15 points in the first five games. However, the second line of 18-year-old Francois-Pierre Guenette, and 17-year-old prospects Petr Vrana and Marc-Andre Bernier were only able to generate 1 goal, 3 points during the same stretch. While this may generate some concern early on, the line is expected to gel over time. Vrana is still getting used to the North American style of play, and Guenette and Bernier still have not been able to adapt to their larger roles on the squad. Given time, these three are expected to provide a formidable second line option for coach Shawn MacKenzie.
2003 Draft Watch:
Petr Vrana: The 17-year-old Czech import has looked solid in his role on the team’s second line. While he has not produced a goal thus far, he has made many heads-up plays. His stickhandling and on-ice awareness has made one double check the program to make sure that yes, this is indeed a 17-year-old player working wonders on the ice. His defensive awareness is there as well, as he has covered the point on many occasions when defensemen have pinched, and he is often the first forward back in the defensive zone when the other team is pressing. Despite his small frame, he has also delivered a few solid body checks, while taking some himself.
Marc-Andre Bernier: To say that Bernier is snake bitten is an understatement. The 6’3” forward, paired with Vrana and Francois-Pierre Guenette on the second line has had several chances to, in his second Quebec league season, net his first QMJHL goal, yet has been unable to do so as of yet. One has to assume, much like in the preseason, where Bernier scored seven goals, that after he nets the elusive first goal, the floodgates will open, and more goals will come.
Alexandre Picard: The sophomore Picard has not missed a beat from his solid play near the end of last season. He has seen much time on the top defensive unit, as well as in special teams situations. His awareness and responsibility, both offensive and defensive is a welcome surprise — it is something not seen too often in players his age. By many accounts, he has been the team’s best defenseman thus far this season, and at only 17, that leaves one to wonder how good he could get as the season progresses. He has yet to find the net, but with his powerful point shot, the first goal of the year will come in a matter of time.
Jimmy Sharrow: The product of the US under-17 program has been a wonderful surprise thus far, thanks to his amazing offensive awareness, and his willingness to pinch in. Sharrow has snuck into the slot numerous times, but has often not been spotted by his teammates. When Sharrow and the rest of his unit get in sync, the offense will come in droves. There were detractors who said that Sharrow’s defensive game was lacking, yet thus far his defensive awareness has been adequate at very least, as he has hustled back into his own end even after pinching, and has also broken up a couple of two-on-ones –and all at only 17 years old. He has seen more time on ice in special teams situations than at even strength thus far, but with experience, his ice time in all departments will grow.
Jonathan Boutin: Boutin and 19-year-old Michael DiLorenzo have been in a battle for the number one goaltending job. So far, it appears that Boutin is winning the battle, posting a 2-1 record, with one shutout and a sparkling 1.00 goals against average through three starts. Boutin and DiLorenzo are expected to continue rotating for much of the early part of the season until one of the goaltenders steps forward as the dominant keeper.
And one final note: Upon Thatcher Bell’s return to Halifax, the Mooseheads had to say goodbye to 20-year-old forward Bruce Gillis. Thanks to the numbers game, with three other established overagers in Bell, Brandon Benedict, and Pat Gilbert, Gillis did not have a place on this year’s squad, and was released. The Mooseheads front office chose to make this move immediately, to allow Gillis ample time to continue his hockey career elsewhere, rather than drag the issue on into the next few weeks.
Gillis spent the more than three seasons with the Mooseheads organization, dating back to 1999-2000, when the Mooseheads hosted the Memorial Cup. Gillis was perhaps the best defensive forward in the team’s nine year history, playing on the third line for the past two seasons, shutting down opposing top lines, while putting up modest offensive numbers in the process. Gillis’s heart and determination continued to the end of his final game, where on his final shift against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, he delivered a solid body check along the boards shortly before the final buzzer sounded. His work ethic will be greatly missed. Gillis will play for St. Thomas University.
From behind the net, this is Phil Laugher, for Hockey’s Future.