The QMJHL playoff race is now down to four teams. There have been few surprises thus far, as three of the top four ranked teams in the league are still alive to fight another day. Only the upstart Rouyn-Noranda Huskies have defied the odds thus far, going deeper than expected.
Lewiston Maineiacs (1E) v. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (6T)
The first of the two playoff series features the league’s top ranked team, the Lewiston Maineiacs, facing an overachieving Rouyn-Noranda Huskies squad that finished sixth in their division. Both teams have taken different routes to this series – Lewiston having a relatively easy time, while Rouyn-Noranda has had to claw through two tough series.
The Maineiacs started their playoffs by dispatching of the Shawinigan Cataractes in a four-game sweep. It then took them five games to dispose of the tenacious Halifax Mooseheads. In comparison, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies upset the Gatineau Olympiques in five games, but were mired in a hard-fought seven-game series against the rejuvenated Drummondville Voltigeurs in the second round.
As the top team in the Eastern Division, the Lewiston Maineiacs appear to have an edge going into the series. However, that extra time between series has historically not always been a blessing and the Huskies, the sixth team overall in the Telus Division hope that is the case again as the two face-off in the QMJHL semi-finals. Lewiston and Rouyn-Noranda played twice during the regular season, with Lewiston winning both matches.
Jonathan Bernier (LA) is possibly the best goaltender in the QMJHL. A first-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings, Bernier has lost just one game so far in the postseason this year and is second in the league in playoff save percentage and goals-against average with a .917 and 2.42 respectively. He excels at being in the right position at the right time and his quickness makes it near impossible to beat down low. Meanwhile, his stellar glove hand is excellent at snaring pucks coming in up high. Should the unlikely situation of Bernier faltering or getting injured occur, the Maineiacs also have a star backup in Peter Delmas. Not eligible to be drafted until 2008, Delmas opened a lot of eyes when he carried the load for Lewiston down the stretch, helping solidify their bid to be the top team in the Eastern Division while Bernier sat out with injury.
For Rouyn-Noranda, injuries have also struck their top goaltender, but at an even more inopportune time. Jean-Philippe Levasseur (ANA) missed time for the Huskies during their series against Drummondville due to a leg injury. He was, however, quick to return to help lead the team to victory. Levasseur, an Anaheim draft pick, does not possess the same sterling stats as Bernier, but he is still a solid netminder more than capable of stealing a game for his squad. In 11 games so far this postseason, he has a GAA of 3.22 and a save percentage of .891. His backup, Guillaume Blouin dropped the single contest he started in, but has slightly better stats in his limited time with a GAA of 3.16 and a save percentage of .907.
Lewiston boasts a hard-nosed blue line led by Atlanta prospect, Chad Denny (ATL). A second round pick in 2005, the Eskasoni native is known around the league for his hard shot and as can be seen by his seven playoff goals, when he tees it up, it has a good chance of finding the back of the net. A tough customer in every situation, Denny is key to shutting down the opposition’s offensive stars and characterizes the style of the defensive squad. Another excellent example of Lewiston’s gritty play in their own end is Kevin Marshall. A 2007 draft eligible player, Marshall can keep pace with the more mobile attackers and is excellent at knocking them off the puck and taking them out of the play. Still developing his offensive game, he draws regular shifts against the other team’s top lines. Players like fellow 2007-eligible players Patrick Cusack and Michael Ward as well as veterans Sebastien Piche and Czech import Michael Korenko provide depth.
In contrast, Rouyn-Noranda’s defensive corps claim to fame is the transition game. Ivan Vishnevskiy (DAL) headlines their blue line and his smooth skating and offensive creativity were a large reason why Dallas made him their first-round pick in 2006. In 12 playoff games, he has four goals and ten points. That is the same statistical line score as teammate Mathieu Carle (MTL). A second-round pick in 2006 by Montreal, Carle is also known for skating and puck-handling abilities. The rest of the Rouyn-Noranda blue line is mostly made up of veterans such as Justin Vienneau, a former Columbus draft pick, Guillaume Lepine and Dylan Quaile.
Like their defense, the main attribute that can be found amongst Lewiston’s forwards is hard work along the boards and attention to their own zone. As is often the case, the team captain provides the perfect example of this style of play. At 19 years of age, Marc-Andre Cliche (LA) has already established himself as a premier two-way player with excellent forechecking skills and great strength on the penalty kill. A New York Rangers draft pick, Cliche’s rights were sent to the Los Angeles Kings organization in the Sean Avery deal. Like Cliche, Stefan Chaput (CAR) possesses a defensive conscience beyond his years. Usually matching up against the opposition’s top stars, Chaput operates almost like a third defenseman at times. Although he’s not as skilled in the offensive zone as Cliche, he has scored eight points in nine playoff games thus far.
As always, there’s a bit of an exception to the rule. Not as skilled in his own end, rookie David Perron does provide plenty of offensive zip to the Maineiacs lineup, leading them in playoff scoring. A 2007 draft eligible player at the age of 18, Perron’s skills with the puck form the cornerstone of the Lewiston attack, especially on the power play. The remainder of the Lewiston lineup is a number of savvy veterans like Simon Courcelles (who won the Memorial Cup with Quebec last season), Pierre-Luc Faubert, Eric Castonguay and Stefano Giliati.
Similar to their opponents, the Huskies forwards also seem to lack a game breaker type of forward. One of their top offensive stars is 2007 draft eligible Jeff Desjardins. Not the largest player on the ice, the Mont-Laurier native makes up for it with his skating ability and drive. Possessing quick hands and patience with the puck, Desjardins has five goals and 12 points in 12 playoff games.
Another player of note would fit right in with Lewiston’s defensive system, Hugo Carpentier (CGY), a Calgary Flames prospect might not set the league on fire with his offensive skills, but his play away from the puck is top-notch. Often matched up against the opposition’s top lines and usually one of the first players back to help out the defensemen, Carpentier excels on face-offs and is a relentless forechecker. Other forwards of note include leading playoff scorer Michael Dubuc (15 points in 12 games) and veterans like overagers Tyler Whitehead, Justin Munden and 18-year-old winger Yannick Riendeau.
Val d’Or Foreurs (1T) v. Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (2E)
The second semi-final series figures to be just as evenly matched as the first, with the Telus Division champion Val d’Or Foreurs facing off against the second-place team in the Eastern Division, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. This series features three members of the Team Canada’s 2007 gold medal-winning World Junior Championships squad, as well as a handful of players who were participants in last year’s Memorial Cup, playing for the host Moncton Wildcats. Both the Foreurs and Screaming Eagles swept their opening round series – Val d’Or trouncing eighth-ranked Chicoutimi, while Cape Breton ousted the St. John’s Fog Devils, and both won their quarter-final series in five games, with Cape Breton getting past the one-dimensional Acadie-Bathurst Titan, and Val d’Or out-gunning the talented Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
While the Maineiacs/Huskies series features two teams that boast great offensive depth, spread throughout their line-up, the Foreurs and Screaming Eagles both rely heavily on the top two lines of their roster to provide the bulk of the offense. Both teams also boast defensive units with high-impact offensive weapons coupled with solid defensive responsibility, as well as highly-touted goaltenders who have proven in the past that they can win under pressure.
If Lewiston’s Bernier is not the top goaltender in the league, then Cape Breton’s Ondrej Pavelec (ATL) is his likely alternate. The 19-year-old product of the Czech Republic has been the Screaming Eagles starting goaltender for the past two seasons, carrying the bulk of the load, while posting a miniscule goals against average and strong save percentage. In the playoffs, Pavelec has posted an 8-1 record, with a league-best 1.70 goals against average, and the top save percentage of .932. Pavelec struggled in the early part of the season, but has been counted on down the stretch as his conditioning has improved. A strong series from Pavelec will be integral in helping Cape Breton in the semis. His backup, David Davenport, is more than capable of filling in should Pavelec run into difficulties, but coach and general manager Pascal Vincent has been willing to stick with Pavelec through thick and thin over the course of the season.
For the Val d’Or Foreurs, the bulk of the goaltending work will fall onto the shoulders of Jeremy Duchesne (PHI), who was acquired from the Halifax Mooseheads at the trade deadline. Duchesne, who carried Halifax to the league final in 2004-05, has shown in the past that he can elevate his game greatly in the playoffs, and his solid play has been an important factor in the Foreurs’ relatively easy jaunt through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Duchesne will be playing with a heavy heart, as the Philadelphia draft pick is mourning the recent loss of his father, former NHLer Gaetan Duchesne, who passed away last weekend. Duchesne was given a temporary leave of absence by the team and will likely miss Friday’s opening game. A focused netminder between the pipes, calm and cool under pressure, Duchesne will need renewed focus upon his return when facing down the Cape Breton attack. Should Duchesne run into difficulty, 2007-eligible rookie Raffaele d’Orso provides a solid, if untested, second option.
Both the Foreurs and Eagles boast defensive units that, if combined, would produce a very solid all-star team. For the Eagles, the acquisition of 19-year-old impact defenseman Luc Bourdon (VAN) from Moncton at the trade deadline went a long way in showing that Cape Breton was serious in making a run deep into the playoffs. Bourdon, who played for the Wildcats in last year’s Memorial Cup, has also had a taste of NHL hockey, and is a former two-time member of Canada’s World Junior squad, so he knows how to play big in big games. Though he was a bit inconsistent immediately following the trade, he has rounded into form in recent weeks.
Alongside Bourdon is perhaps one of the best defensive defensemen in the league, another former Wildcat, Latvian import Oskars Bartulis (PHI), who will bring poise and defensive stability to the back end. Leading the attack from the blue line will be overage defenseman (and former Minnesota draft pick) Jean-Claude Sawyer, whose 15 points in the playoffs places him third among defensemen. Rounding out the Screaming Eagles blue line are heavy-hitting stay-at-homers Beau Prokopetz and Jason Swit, and rookie Spencer Corcoran.
Heading up the Foreurs blue line is the former captain of Team Canada’s World Junior squad, Kristopher Letang (PIT). Perhaps the most talented offensive defenseman in the league, Letang has been a dynamic offensive force, posting seven goals and 12 assists in only eight games. He missed one game in the series versus Baie Comeau due to suspension. Letang also brings admirable defensive play in his own end, and is an excellent foil to Cape Breton’s offensive attack.
Overager Sebastien Bisaillon (EDM) plays like a poor-man’s Letang, bringing underrated offensive ability and solid play in his own end. Bisaillon, who received a two-game emergency call-up by the Edmonton Oilers (who signed him in the offseason), will be counted on heavily to carry the second pairing. Also on the Foreurs blue line are 18-year-old Jason Legault, and 19-year-olds Louis-Etienne Leblanc and Cedric Archambault, and Samuel Richard.
Cape Breton boasts two quality scoring lines, headlined by one of the best two-way forwards in the league, James Sheppard (MIN). Sheppard, who stumbled out of the gates early in the season due largely to a lower back ailment, has been nothing less than dominant in the second half of the season, building off of his snub from Team Canada’s World Junior training camp. Sheppard has shown a knack for clutch goals, with three of his six in the playoffs thus far being of the game-winning variety.
Supplementing the offense (and carrying it on many nights) are their two overage forwards, Paul Alexander McIlveen and Cam Fergus. The two front-line components have picked up 15 goals combined (10 on the power play) in nine games, and bring creative offensive awareness to the table. Bringing gritty two-way play to the table are centermen Dean Ouellet (14 points) and Chris Culligan (8 points). Another player to look out for is banging winger (and 2007 eligible) Scott Brannon (5 points).
Val d’Or has relied heavily on one line to produce the bulk of their offense thus far in the playoffs, and it will be imperative that they find scoring from other places, should the top line be shut down. Brad Marchand (BOS) leads the potent Foreurs offense thus far in the playoffs, having posted 23 points in only nine games. Marchand is another veteran of both the Memorial Cup and Canada’s national hockey program, and has been on fire in the playoffs.
Marchand’s teammate with Moncton last season, Jerome Samson, has provided solid drive to the net and hard work along the boards. Samson joined Val d’Or at the trade deadline, and has been a dominant offensive weapon all season. He has scored eight goals thus far in the playoffs. Overage forward (and two-time 40-goal scorer) Mathieu Roy (undrafted, not to be confused with a former Val d’Or defenseman of the same name in the Edmonton system) is the third part of the Foreurs offensive weaponry. He has posted 15 points through the first two rounds. German import Felix Schutz (BUF) brings solid secondary scoring (he has posted nine points) and responsibility at both ends of the ice. Beyond these four (who, with Letang, have combined for 80% of Val d’Or’s offense), no other Foreur forward has notched more than four points. Veterans like Marc-Andre Cote and Justin Saulnier will have to provide secondary scoring, particularly if the top line is shut down.
Kevin Forbes and Phil Laugher contributed to this article. Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.