QMJHL finals preview

By Phil Laugher

The final-round series of the QMJHL playoffs
begins tonight,
and as should be the case, it will be the two best teams in the league
playing for
the league championship. But being at the top of the standings is not
the only
thing these two teams have in common, in what should be a very
exciting, fast-paced
finals series.

The two combatants, the Rimouski Oceanic and the Halifax Mooseheads,
made quick
work of their semi-final opponents, with the Oceanic defeating the
Chicoutimi
Sagueneens rather easily in five games (the single loss which resulted
in the end of
the Oceanic’s astounding 35-game undefeated streak), and the Mooseheads
sweeping the
Western Division champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in four games. Halifax,
too, was on
a bit of a tear after the New Year, losing only six games in regulation
down the
stretch.

Coincidentally, both teams’ streaks to the playoffs (and the top of the
standings) began after a coaching change. After languishing in the middle of the
standings for
the first part of the season, Rimouski’s management removed head coach
Donald
Dufresne from his position, bringing back the wildly successful and
flamboyant Doris
Labonte, who guided Rimouski to their Memorial Cup championship in
2000. Halifax,
too, had been mired amongst the middling teams in the first half of the
season, and
relieved long-time head coach Shawn Mackenzie of his duties, replacing
him with
former NHL forward Al MacAdam. The two different styles of play, up-tempo, offensive styles, of Labonte and MacAdam threw a wrench into the plans of the
opposition, and have been very key in the recent successes of their two
teams.

The teams met four times during the regular season, with each winning two games, and both winning one game on the
road. Though
both buildings are intimidating places to play, both teams have proven
that they are
able to drown out the noise and win on the road. Halifax and Rimouski met only once during
Rimouski’s long undefeated streak; near the beginning, with Rimouski
blowing out Halifax, in Halifax, 8-4.

While Rimouski and Halifax are loaded with NHL-drafted offensive and
defensive
talent, both teams have goaltenders who, prior to this year, were
relatively
un-tested in big-game situations. Rimouski’s Cedric Desjardins
and Halifax’s
Jeremy Duchesne have been the main workhorses between the pipes
for the two
teams in the stretch run and in the playoffs, and have performed
admirably. Two
goaltenders that have been very shaky earlier in their careers, it is
clear that
both are benefiting from playing with strong, competent, veteran
defensive units in
front of them, helping mask subtle problems in their respective
games.
However, with two squads as offensively-laden as Halifax and Rimouski
facing off, if
the defenses cannot help their goaltenders out, then the scores may get
very high
indeed.

Thus far, though, Desjardins and Duchesne have kept their goals allowed
very low.
Desjardins has posted a record of eight wins, with only one loss, while
holding onto
a small 2.05 goals against average, and turning away 94 percent of the
shots he has
faced. Duchesne’s numbers have been even better than Desjardins’s, with
Duchesne
posting the same 8-1 record, but a miniscule 1.85 goals against
average, and a 93.4
save percentage. Both goaltenders have proven to be stalwarts in the
defensive zone
thus far, but the main question is, will they be able to keep up their
consistency
in the face of two of the most potent offenses in the league?

The Rimouski offense was by far the most deadly in the league, and is
led by phenom
and consensus 2005 number one draft pick Sidney Crosby. Crosby has continued his
dominant scoring ways in the playoffs, picking up an astounding 22
points in only
nine games. What may be more astonishing is that Crosby has been shut
off the
score-sheet twice in the playoffs, and thus in games when he picks up a
point, he is
scoring at a three-point-per-game clip. Crosby finished the third round in
style,
notching four goals in their 5-1 defeat of Chicoutimi. Supporting
Crosby offensively
are his line-mates, Dany Roussin (FLA) and Marc-Antoine
Pouliot
(EDM),
who have also contributed greatly offensively. (15 points and 13 points
respectively). Pouliot, who is a regular centerman on that line, has
been hampered
for much of the playoffs with an upper-body injury, and thus Crosby has
been forced
into taking the bulk of the key faceoffs, of which he is winning at a modest rate of 53 percent.

Unlike through much of the regular season, where Rimouski’s offense was
for the most
part the Sidney Crosby & Friends show, Rimouski has seen a vast
increase in
secondary scoring from the depth lines on its roster. Zbynek
Hrdel
(TB) and
Danny Stewart (MTL) have provided strong secondary offensive
support on the
nights when Crosby’s line has been shut down offensively, each player
contributing a
point per game. 2005-eligible Francis Charette has also been a
key
contributor. Alongside the slick offensive play of their top six
forwards, they
boast plenty of physical wingers, led by Tampa Bay draft-pick Mark
Tobin
, who
leads the team with 29 hits. Also contributing in the physical
department is
enforcer Eric Neilson, who will miss the first game of the
series as a result
of a suspension obtained in game four of the Chicoutimi series.

While Rimouski’s offense is, for the most part, top-heavy, Halifax’s
offense is
equally potent, but also boasts a balanced scoring attack. With no
overwhelming go-to unit on the roster, Halifax has had no problems sharing the puck between the
lines. If one of the top lines is slumping, a secondary line has
invariably stepped
up in this playoff series. The stretch run had seen Marc-Andre
Bernier
,
Francois-Pierre Guenette (both VAN), and Frederik Cabana
(PHI) picking
up the offensive slack, pieced together after many bodies had passed in
and out of
the line-up. However, with a healthy rostrum of forwards back in the
fold for
Halifax, that successful unit has been broken up for the playoffs, and
has thus
resulted in a balanced level of scoring permeating through all lines.

While Guenette’s line, with Bernier and over-ager Daniel Sparre
have
continued scoring – less consistently, but scoring nonetheless, it has
been the
combination of Petr Vrana (NJ), Rane Carnegie, and
(interchangeably)
Cabana and Jan Steber (TOR) that picked up the scoring as well
in the
playoffs. Vrana in particular, the team’s captain, who had been mired
in a
season-long slump, was dominant in the Rouyn-Noranda series, picking up
three goals
in three games, despite suffering through the series with a bad case of
the flu.
19-year-old centerman David Brine has also brought an improved
offensive presence in the playoffs, and has continued his perpetually strong work in the faceoff circle, winning faceoffs at a near 63 percent rate. In fact, Brine, Vrana,
and Guenette, the three top faceoff men for Halifax, all have a
success rate above 50 percent in the playoffs.

For Rimouski, the best defense has been a great offense. Undrafted
over-ager
Mario Scalzo, and 19-year-old Patrick Coulombe have
padded their
reputations as point-producers and power play specialists into
the
playoffs. The pair combined for 16 points in only five games against
Chicoutimi, while through the whole playoffs, both players have scored at above a point-per-game
average. While Scalzo and Coulombe bring the offense, it is
Jean-Michel
Bolduc
(MIN) and Michal Sersen (PIT) who bring the
physicality on the
blue line. Both players are strong at both ends of the ice, and are
willing and able
to throw their ample frames around fairly regularly. 2005-eligibles
Erick
Tremblay
and Francois Bolduc, as well as Graham Bona
have not seen much ice time, but have been counted on to bring consistent, if unimpressive, play in their own ends. Tremblay has been in and out of the line-up throughout much of the playoffs.

For Halifax, the 2005 playoffs have been an awakening for Jimmy
Sharrow

(ATL). Sharrow, whose offensive prowess has never been understated, has
turned into a dominant force in all aspects of the game in the playoffs. His defensive play has
been vastly improved, his physical game (which had been non-existent)
has blossomed, and his stellar offensive play has been even better, while keeping disciplined and
keeping turnovers to a minimum. Sharrow has eight points in nine games
thus far. The
task of watching Crosby will likely fall to Alexandre Picard
(PHI), who has
been strong thus far in the playoffs. He is probably the most physical
defenseman for Halifax, and is positionally sound in his own end.
Pierre-Olivier
Beaulieu
and Franklin MacDonald, and Jeff MacAuley
bring solid defensive presences with some offensive ability, while Jean-Francois
Brault
and Luciano Lomanno will rotate in and out of the line-up as the
Sixth defenseman.

The key to the series will be which squad performs better in the special teams
department. Throughout the season, Rimouski has been lethal on the
power play. When
they can ice a combination of Crosby, Pouliot, Roussin, Scalzo, and
Coulombe, that
is not surprising in the least, as all five players are dynamic
offensively, and
trade the puck back and forth with the skill akin to your typical NHL
power play unit. In the playoffs, Rimouski has scored 21 power play goals, nearly
half of their total offensive output. During the regular season, Rimouski fired
at a 26.9
percent success rate with the man advantage. Discipline problems, and
Rimouski’s
ability to exploit those problems, have been the bane of the success of
most of
Rimouski’s opponents throughout the season.

Halifax, however, has the ability to counter Rimouski’s potent
special-teams unit.
The Mooseheads, through the regular season, boasted the league’s best
penalty-killing unit, with a kill rate of 85 percent. They have
been even
better in the playoffs playing one man down, killing off nearly 88
percent of their
penalties (coincidentally, Rimouski has also been even stronger with
the man
advantage in the playoffs). The key to this battle may be that Halifax
has numerous
solid two-way players who have played on the penalty kill through most
of the
season, while the Crosby line is the only real potent man advantage
threat.
Regardless of their abilities at killing off penalties, against
Rimouski, Halifax
will have to up their discipline, lest they too suffer a similar fate
as Rimouski’s
other opponents.

The allure of the greatest player in the CHL making it to the Memorial
Cup finals
certainly makes the nation buzz. Rimouski is talented at both ends of
the ice, and
is most definitely capable of walking away with the President’s Cup.
However,
Halifax, too, is a deep, capable team, with plenty of veterans who wish
to exorcise
the demons of falling one game short of a berth to the Memorial Cup in
2003.
Regardless of the outcome, one thing is for certain: the QMJHL finals
will be highly
entertaining.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission
of the
editorial staff.