The first round of the 2003 QMJHL Playoffs is complete. The Halifax Mooseheads, paced by balanced scoring from all four lines and stellar goaltending from mid-season acquisition Guillaume Lavallee were able to coast over their provincial rivals, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, winning their first round series in the minimum of four games.
It was not expected that the Screaming Eagles would provide very much competition against the Mooseheads in this series, for both teams are on different paths. Halifax loaded up this season, and is making a run at a Memorial Cup berth in Quebec City in May, while Cape Breton is in the early stages of rebuilding. Even the superior goaltending performances of top 2003 NHL prospect Marc-Andre Fleury were not enough to stave off the inevitable in this series.
Round One Wrap
Game one saw a steady outpouring of Halifax offensive onslaught. Fleury was able to keep the Eagles in the game, keeping the score only 2-0 halfway through the game, but the perpetual pressure from the Mooseheads got to Fleury in the second half of the game, and Halifax ended up winning 6-0. Rookie Frederik Cabana had a breakout game, picking up two goals (he had four in sixty regular season games), Boston Bruins prospect defenseman Milan Jurcina also notched two. Jean-Francois Cyr and Francois-Pierre Guenette buried singles. Goaltender Guillaume Lavallee was strong in nets when tested, turning away 22 shots, while Fleury stopped 35 in the loss. Halifax also lost Jean-Francois Cyr to a one-game suspension for a spearing infraction midway through the third period.
Game two saw much of the same as game one: offensive dominance from Halifax, and acrobatics from Fleury. Halifax out shot the Eagles 46 to 16, but only won the game 3-0, as Fleury stood on his head again. The game was scoreless until the twelve-minute mark of the second period, when Francois-Pierre Guenette notched his second of the series on the power play. Fleury`s best efforts were squelched in the third, as Halifax poured two more goals past the Eagles netminder, the first from Thatcher Bell, and the second from Brandon Benedict. Lavallee shut the Eagles down the rest of the way, notching his second consecutive shutout.
The scene shifted to Sydney for game three, but the result was not much different than the first two games of the series, as Halifax topped Cape Breton 5-0. Steve Villeneuve got Halifax on the board six minutes into the first, and then Fleury took over for much of the game, turning aside 22 of 23 shots in the first two periods. But the Mooseheads depth finally got the better of Fleury, as Halifax launched a barrage of four goals in four minutes, with a pair from rookie Frederik Cabana, a power play marker from Milan Jurcina, and a second from Villeneuve. Guillaume Lavallee notched his third straight shutout, and his Mooseheads took a stranglehold in the series, up three games to none.
Game four ended up being the deciding game in the series, as Halifax ousted Cape Breton in a closer, tight-checking affair, 3-2. Guillaume Lavallee was a mere twenty-two minutes of shutout hockey away from breaking Martin Biron`s playoff record of 202 straight minutes of zeroes on the opposition board. His teammates gave him a quick jump-start, as AJ MacLean scored in a shorthanded situation. That goal was followed shortly thereafter by Brandon Benedict`s second of the series, giving the Mooseheads a two-goal lead after one. The two-minute mark passed by, and Guillaume Lavallee became the king of QMJHL playoff shutout hockey. The streak was snapped eleven minutes into the period on a goal from Colorado draft pick Pierre-Luc Emond. Cape Breton came back to tie the game with five minutes left in the third, on a goal by Greg Hoffe. But Halifax rookie defenseman Jimmy Sharrow would play spoiler, wristing a shot from the point through a crowd in front, past Fleury on the glove side, clinching the series for Halifax.
In the other series, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan swept the Chicoutimi Saguneens, the Memorial Cup hosts the Quebec Remparts defeated the Moncton Wildcats in six games, the Hull Olympiques swept the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, the Shawinigan Cataractes stunned the #2 ranked Victoriaville Tigres in four games, and the Sherbrooke Castors defeated the Montreal Rocket in double-overtime of game seven, sending the Rocket packing to Charlottetown for the next season. Halifax faces Acadie-Bathurst, Quebec heads to Baie-Comeau, Shawinigan draws the Val d`Or Foreurs, and Sherbrooke and Hull will hook up.
Round Two Preview
This is not the first time Halifax and Bathurst have met up in the playoffs. The first time was in the 1998-99 playoffs, where the two super-power teams locked up in the second round. Bathurst shocked a Halifax team populated by the likes of future NHLers Alex Tanguay and Ladislav Nagy in five games. Halifax does not want such a disappointing result this year.
This year`s meeting very much resembles the 98/99 series. Both teams are very deep offensively, and there are very high hopes for the success of the Halifax squad. Both teams boast offensive depth that makes most other teams run in fear. Halifax had seven players who scored more than twenty-five goals, and possesses two very strong scoring lines (Bell/Benedict/Macrae and Vrana/Cyr/Guenette) that would be top lines on any other team in the league. There are not many teams around that have a 26-goal man on the third line (Marc-Andre Bernier, who missed the entire first round with a separated shoulder suffered late in the regular season). However, in the first round, scoring was scattered, without one line stepping up. Balanced scoring was effective enough against Cape Breton, but the impact players have to make an impact in round two for Halifax to succeed. Bathurst matches up very well with Halifax`s offensive prowess, possessing one of the most offensively intimidating lines in the league, with 104-point man and heart-and-soul of the team Olivier Filion, top power-forward Jonathan Ferland, and hulking Euro Janis Sprukts. Bathurst also boasts a strong second line of Michael Tessier, star rookie Patrice Bergeron, and Karl Fournier. The checking lines will play a key role in this series. Whichever checking lines can shut down the top line of each team will be a determining factor in the series obviously.
Halifax has a decided advantage here, with the deepest defensive corps in the league. Boston Bruins prospect Milan Jurcina leads the way with his physical play and nose for the net. Deadline acquisition Steve Villeneuve adds another offensive mind at the point. Always reliable Bobby Clarke and Randy Upshall prevent scoring chances, they don`t create them. 2003 draft prospects Alexandre Picard and Jimmy Sharrow play very well positionally, and have improved immensely as the season has progressed. Before the trade deadline, Bathurst`s defense matched up well, but the return of Sprukts meant that long-time defenseman Tyler Reid had to be sent away to alleviate the overage problem they faced with his return. Bathurst also made what many deem a downgrade in moving Greg Hoffe to Cape Breton for unproven Marc-Olivier Vary. Bathurst still possesses one of the best-kept offensive secrets in the league in Bruno Gervais, impact overager Jean-Philippe Cote, and hulking, tough-as-nails European Ondrej Wantulok. The rest of the defensive corps is untested and unproven, and that lack of depth in the four, five, and six positions will hurt Bathurst immensely.
Goaltending was deemed the question mark for Halifax coming into the playoffs this year, as the Mooseheads did not have a bonafide number one man. Jonathan Boutin and Guillaume Lavallee were platooned throughout much of the second half of the season, but Lavallee emerged as the number one man near the end of the season, and played every minute of the first round, silencing many critics in notching three straight shutouts in the first round. His adversary, Adam Russo, has been a Halifax killer, playing especially well in the Halifax Metro Centre over his career. A big-game player, Russo also has something that the Mooseheads netminders do not have: playoff experience, having taken his team to two conference finals in his career. Halifax must keep Russo rattled and block up the front of the net with traffic if they wish to move on.
– Keys for success:
Halifax: 1) Consistent, regular scoring from overagers 2) Shut down Filion/Ferland/Sprukts 3) Rattle Russo.
Bathurst: 1) Out-hit the smaller Halifax team 2) Cote/Gervais/Wantulok have to be dominant on the point 3) Make Halifax pay on the power-play.
Statistics after Round One
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