QMJHL semi-finals preview

By Phil Laugher

The match-ups in the two semi-finals series in the QMJHL playoffs were determined on Monday night when the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies eliminated the Moncton Wildcats in six games. As a result of their victory, the QMJHL semi-finals will pit the top four ranked teams in the league against one another.

Rimouski Oceanic vs. Chicoutimi Sagueneens

In the first semi-final series, the offensive juggernaut Rimouski Oceanic will take on the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, who make their second straight appearance in the QMJHL semi-finals. The two division rivals played each other eight times during the regular season, with the Oceanic winning four games, the Sagueneens winning three, and the teams tying the eighth. Chicoutimi’s success, however, came in the first half of the season, when they won three of the four games between the teams. Rimouski won the final four meetings between the two teams, scoring less than five goals only once during that streak.

Rimouski, who has gone undefeated since December 2004 (an astounding streak of 32 games without a loss), made relatively easy work of the Lewiston Maineiacs in the second round, after having received a first-round bye, sweeping the American-based squad in four straight games, in spite of the fact that during the regular season they had had problems defeating them. Chicoutimi, on the other hand, had a more difficult time dispatching the Quebec Remparts, taking six games to oust the team owned by former NHL goaltender Patrick Roy. Their sound 8-0 thrashing of the Remparts in the decisive game, however, makes the series appear less close than it actually was.

The Oceanic are, of course, led by the consensus number one draft pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Sidney Crosby. The CHL’s most valuable player notched eight points in only four games. Crosby plays on what is widely consider to be the top line in the QMJHL, alongside Marc-Antoine Pouliot (EDM) and Dany Roussin (FLA). These three will see copious amounts of ice time, as they have for much of the season, and the continued success of Rimouski in the playoffs will rest on their shoulders. Given their performances throughout this season, that pressure is nothing new. The trio combined for nearly 400 points in the regular season, and also bring defensive zone responsibility in addition to their dominant offensive play. If this line is even remotely on their game against the Sagueneens, this series could be a short one.

If the top line somehow fails to generate offense, Rimouski proved in the last round that it does, indeed, have more depth in the scoring department to pick up any slack. In the third game of their series against Lewiston, the Crosby line was completely shut off the score sheet, yet Rimouski won the game 6-5. Montreal prospect Danny Stewart and Tampa Bay’s Zbynek Hrdel and Mark Tobin, and slight but skilled centerman, who had an excellent rookie season, provide an adequate second wave of scoring attack. Much to the dismay of the opposition, it appears that shutting down Crosby & Company is not enough to ensure victory anymore.

On defense, the acquisition of over-ager Mario Scalzo Jr. at the QMJHL trade deadline proved to be a bigger addition than was expected. In only 23 games with Rimouski during the regular season, the two-way defenseman notched 44 points. Paired with Patrick Coulombe, the two make for a deadly unit regardless of the situation on the ice. Add Pittsburgh prospect Michal Sersen to the mix, and Rimouski has a blue line that can generate as much offense as many of the league’s forward units can. Compensating for the run-and-gun defensemen that see the bulk of the ice, are defensively responsible 2005 eligibles Erick Tremblay and Francois Bolduc, and Minnesota draft pick Jean-Michel Bolduc, who bring a size and stability to the defensive zone.

The only perceived Achilles heel for the Oceanic, at least in the early stages of the season, was between the pipes. Early in the season, unsure as to whether or not incumbent netminder Cedric Desjardins could handle the heavier workload, Rimouski traded for overager Jean-Michel Filiatrault. At the time of the trade, Rimouski was languishing in the middle of the standings, having given up the most goals during the season at that point. Filiatrault’s arrival helped right the ship, but as 2004 came to an end, Filiatrault’s game fell back off, and at the same time Desjardins began to play much better, with the New Brunswick-born netminder eventually stealing back his number one job from Filiatrault. Desjardins has been the go-to guy down the stretch and into the playoffs for Rimouski, playing an unflashy, competent game in the Rimouski net. He posted a very impressive 2.25 goals against average in the series against a very talented Lewiston team, and has shown that he may be capable of dealing with pressures inherent with a long playoff run.

The Chicoutimi Sagueneens will have no problems generating pressure on Desjardins. They boasted the fourth-best offense in the league during the regular season, averaging nearly four goals a game. Their offense is led by undrafted 19-year-old forward Maxime Boisclair, who exploded offensively in his fourth QMJHL season, scoring 51 goals and 108 points. Astoundingly, Boisclair notched 33 goals on the powerplay. Alongside Boisclair are Slovakian forward Stanislav Lascek, slick Czech centerman and 2005 eligible Marek Zagrapan, and small and shifty David Desharnais. Lascek currently sits tied for the playoff scoring lead with Moncton forward Steve Bernier (SJ), with four goals and 19 points. Zagrapan, Desharnais, and Boisclair each have 15 points. Zagrapan has scored the most goals thus far with nine.

Chicoutimi has also counted on the slight shoulders of 17-year-old Francis Verrault-Paul, who has turned out to be quite the playoff performer thus far, with 13 points in 12 games, after only 21 points in 69 regular season games. Over-ager Francis Lemieux, who missed a few games in their first round series against Baie-Comeau, is also firing at a point per game in the playoffs.

The defense for Chicoutimi lives and dies with over-age defenseman Nicolas Marcotte. Marcotte, who plays an excellent two-way game and loves to throw his weight around, sees lots of minutes and plays in all situations, and will likely have the unenviable task of making Sidney Crosby’s life difficult on the ice. In the regular season, Marcotte picked up 67 points, and has not slowed down in the playoffs. He is complemented on the point by several defensively responsible defensemen, including 2005 eligibles Julien Brouillette and Guillaume Lepine, as well as overager Marc-Andre Roy.

One of the top goaltending prospects for the 2005 NHL Entry Draft has seen the bulk of the playing time down the stretch for Chicoutimi. Lanky 17-year-old Alexandre Vincent has played in every game thus far in the playoffs, with a 7-4 record and a solid 2.37 goals against average. Vincent will be peppered by the Oceanic, and has had a knack for giving up the occasional bad goal during the season. He will have to stay sharp, for he will be under siege often. If Vincent cannot get the job done, Brandon Verge serves as an adequate replacement. Verge saw plenty of playing time during the regular season, and picked up a victory in his only playoff appearance thus far; game four against Quebec, where he replaced a rattled Vincent, helping bring his team from behind.

Chicoutimi led the Central Division much of the season, only to lose that lead in the final week of the season to Rimouski. Chicoutimi has already defeated two of their division rivals, Baie-Comeau and Quebec. They will be looking for avenge their slump against the Oceanic. They have the offense to match up with Rimouski, and some playoff experience, but the key question is whether or not they have the defense to keep the puck out of their net.

Halifax Mooseheads vs. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

The second of the QMJHL semi-final series pits the Atlantic Division champion Halifax Mooseheads up against the Western Division champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Both teams had the luxury of a first-round bye. Halifax made it to the third round after winning a hard-fought five-game series against the defending QMJHL champions, the Gatineau Olympiques, in which games 3 and 4, on back-to-back nights, went to overtime. Rouyn-Noranda were able to eliminate the other finalist from last season, the Moncton Wildcats, in six hard-fought games. The Huskies proved to be very resilient, winning the final two games of the series by coming from behind in the third period on both occasions.

Halifax is another of the great offensive powers in the QMJHL this season, boasting three lines who can consistently put the puck in the net. The best and most consistent line for Halifax over the past three months has been the combination of Frederik Cabana (PHI), and a pair of Vancouver prospects, Marc-Andre Bernier and Francois-Pierre Guenette. The trio were put together permanently shortly into the new year, and have been dynamite offensively since. They picked up seven goals and 17 points against Gatineau, though Cabana will miss the first game of the series serving a suspension.

The second line features Czech countrymen Petr Vrana (NJ) and Jan Steber (TOR), as well as 19-year-old Rane Carnegie. After slumping down the stretch, all three have picked up their offensive game in the playoffs. Carnegie leads the team in playoff scoring with seven points, and Vrana, who had been mired in an awful slump since returning from the World Junior Championship in early January, has finally started scoring in the playoffs, playing an up-tempo style reminiscent of his 2003 playoff dominance. Adding speedy winger Daniel Sparre to the mix, and Halifax’s offense will be tough to slow down.

Complementing the strong offense is an equally strong defense, anchored by Philadelphia prospect Alexandre Picard, who in his fourth QMJHL season, has rounded into a complete player, bringing responsibility and creativity at both ends of the ice, and a strong physical game. Coupled with offensively creative Jimmy Sharrow (ATL), there is plenty of scoring punch from the point. One-time Detroit draft pick Pierre-Olivier Beaulieu, and 19-year-olds Jeff MacAuley and Franklin MacDonald bring quiet defensive stability to Halifax’s back end.

At the midway point of the season, the starting goaltending job unquestionably belonged to Jason Churchill (SJ). At the trade deadline, Halifax picked up 18-year-old netminder Jeremy Duchesne for security in case Churchill went down with an injury. What happened was an all-too-typical occurrence in the past in Halifax. Churchill faltered in January, and Duchesne went on an unbelievable tear between the pipes, effectively stealing the number one goaltender’s job from the Sharks prospect. Duchesne went undefeated from his arrival in Halifax, to game two of the second round against Gatineau, and has thus far only lost one game while posting a sparkling goals against average and save percentage. If the 2005 eligible Duchesne falters — which he has given no signs of yet — Churchill will be ready to retake his job.

Much like their opponents in Halifax (and keeping to the theme present in the other semi-finals series), the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies play an excellent two-way play with a balanced scoring attack. Loaded with veteran leadership that has already proved its resiliency in the team’s first playoff round, the Huskies are ready for the challenge that the deep Mooseheads team presents them with. They are making their second semi-finals appearance in the team’s history.

The offense is headed up by three key players, over-age forward Yannick Tifu, Columbus draft pick Philippe Dupuis, and slight undrafted forward Brent Aubin, each of whom scored more than 80 points over the course of the regular season. Aubin, who led the team with 41 goals during the regular season, currently is tied for the team lead in the playoffs with six points. Dupuis, who was also a member of Gatineau’s (Hull’s) playoff runs in the last couple years, can be counted on for his playoff leadership, and currently leads the team in goal scoring, with five goals in six games. Rouyn-Noranda will also look to power-forward and antagonist extraordinaire Guillaume Desbiens (ATL) for leadership. He has been known to score the clutch goal from time to time, and is always creating space and getting under the skin of the opposition. More clutch scoring can be expected from Dominic Deblois, son of former NHLer Lucien Deblois. He currently has two game winning goals in this playoff season.

The blueline of the Huskies does not contain any big names, but is loaded with competent defensive defensemen, led by over-ager Philippe Seguin. The fourth-year blueliner had his best offensive season this year with 41 points, and will be counted on to shut down the opposition’s top lines. Alongside Seguin, defensemen Olivier Magnan, Louis-Philippe Allaire, and Lucas Longpré will see the bulk of the playing time, with Travis Mealy and Francois Champagne also seeing the ice. They are not an overly large corps, but what they lack in size they make up for in mobility and skating ability.

Between the pipes, it was expected that highly touted prospect Jean-Philippe Levasseur would gain the number one goaltender’s job after the departure of 18-year-old netminder Philippe Roberge to Drummondville, however, New York Islanders draft pick Sylvain Michaud has played admirably for the Huskies down the stretch, limiting Levasseur’s playing time dramatically. Michaud has been solid in goal in the playoffs, compiling a 4-2 record with a 2.93 goals against average, while Levasseur has only played nine minutes. If Michaud should run into difficulty, Rouyn-Noranda can rest assured that they have a very capable backup in Levasseur.

Both of the semi-finals in the 2005 QMJHL playoffs feature teams with similar playing styles. Both Rimouski and Chicoutimi sport a run-and-gun, offense-first style of play, while Halifax and Rouyn-Noranda are both content with waiting for the right opportunity, playing responsible hockey at both ends of the ice. The two series could not be more evenly matched, and should provide plenty of excitement. The two teams who eventually advance to the league finals will certainly have to have earned it.

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