It may have taken most of the season to prove it, but the Memorial Cup host Rimouski Océanic are finally playing like a championship contender.
Running through a course of inconsistent play followed by a rash of injuries, the Océanic are the Québec Major Junior Hockey League’s hottest team after reeling off 11 straight wins.
In spite of trailing the Québec Remparts by 16 points for top spot in the Telus Eastern Division, head coach Clément Jodoin is more focused on good habits than gaining ground on the division title.
"I don’t care about the gap," Jodoin said. "What’s the most important thing is how we’re going to play. The (other) teams now know that we’re coming.
"We can play against anybody."
Jodoin attributes the team’s recent surge to the return of some key injured players as well as the addition of several veterans, particularly on the blue line. Prior to the trade deadline, Rimouski added defencemen Marc-André Bourdon and Maxime Ouimet in separate deals.
As Jodoin indicated, the addition of veteran presence helped calm things down for a team still realizing their potential.
"I think (we) were just too young in the back," he said. "If you want to win, you have to get older because everything starts from behind."
Rimouski saw the long anticipated return of Keven Veilleux from injury last week while captain Olivier Fortier also returned to the mix in late January after missing substantial time to injury.
During the team’s current winning streak, Rimouski has averaged almost half a goal scored more per game while allowing an average of almost two fewer goals per contest.
"The second half of the season is night and day," said Jodoin. "We’re playing much better as a team."
Otters eye playoff berth
Sitting third in the Ontario Hockey League’s Midwest Division, the Erie Otters are enjoying one of their best seasons since winning the league title in 2002.
The young Otters haven’t played playoff hockey in the previous three seasons but as far as head coach Robbie Ftorek is concerned, the team isn’t looking too far ahead.
"We have to do everything hard when we go out because we don’t want to create bad habits," Ftorek said. "We just want to make sure we go out and we compete and we battle and we play as well as we can play and if we do that, we’ll be in a lot of games."
The race down the stretch for a playoff spot could be intense as five points separate the Otters from the eighth-seeded Owen Sound Attack. Last year’s league champions, the Kitchener Rangers, sit just outside the playoff picture in the ninth spot in the Western Conference, 10 points back of Erie.
While many would be quick to credit the play of Slovakian goaltender Jaroslav Janus, who made a name for himself at the world juniors in Ottawa, Ont., Ftorek wasn’t as quick to sing his goaltender’s praise.
"When he came back he hasn’t been the same player because he’s been taking some shortcuts and that’s (part of) growing up and we’ve been talking to him about it," Ftorek said, adding that Janus is regaining his form of late.
"It’s interesting, (the world juniors was) a coming out party but what has to happen is more people have to take a look at what’s going on down in Erie," said Ftorek. "This kid was just as good as he was in the tournament last year and it’s really a sin that he wasn’t drafted last year."
Another key piece to the puzzle has been Andrew Yogan. Acquired by Erie from Windsor for goaltender Brandon Maxwell, who was later traded to Kitchener, Yogan has provided Erie with another scoring presence in an increased role with the Otters.
"He really likes to score goals but we have to introduce him every once in a while to our goaltender and make sure he comes back in our D zone," said Ftorek. "He’s working on it but he’s got a ways to go, as do all the kids. But he’s done very well for us coming over (from Windsor) no question."
Rockets led by world junior trio
In spite of losing defenceman Luke Schenn, who stuck with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Kelowna Rockets are back in the thick of things due to some world junior stars.
Jamie Benn and Tyler Myers won the gold at the world juniors with Team Canada while the team added Swedish forward Mikael Backlund shortly after the tournament’s conclusion.
Backlund, a Calgary Flames prospect, has had a near seamless transition since joining the Rockets.
"He’s a guy that wants to play in the NHL so if there’s an area he knows he has to work at or if we have to do something with him in order to get him closer to the NHL, he’s more than willing to do it," said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. "He makes the guys around him feel much better about their ability to play the game as well."
Backlund played one game with the Flames after the world juniors before then being assigned to Kelowna. Rockets forward Cody Almond met the Swedish sniper at the airport upon his arrival, helping make the team’s newest addition feel comfortable with his new surroundings.
Meanwhile, the Canadian tandem of Benn and Myers has given the Rockets a blend of offence and shutdown defensive ability which has brought the team championship winning confidence since their return to Kelowna.
"I think (Benn)’s playing with a lot more fire than he had at the beginning of the year," Huska said.
"We use (Myers) a lot against top lines in our league and he’s done a very good job in that area," Huska added of his 6-foot-6, 211 pound defenceman. "I really think when Tyler is focused and ready to go there aren’t a lot of defencemen that are better than him in our league."
The one question mark the Rockets may have entering the playoffs are in goal where the team cut their losses with overager Kris Lazaruk at the trade deadline. Lazaruk was highly inconsistent since joining his new team which led to the team’s decision to seek reinforcements. The Rockets added Mark Guggenberger from Swift Current to join the tandem with 17-year-old Adam Brown.
"It was one of those situations that when (Lazaruk) got here things just didn’t work out," Huska said. "He struggled here, which is something that is unusual for Kris’ track record and it just wasn’t the right fit. At the deadline we felt it was in our best interest to find someone else who could get us to where we wanted to be in the playoffs."
Notes: The OHL suspended Oshawa defenceman James DeLory 12 games after slashing and fighting an opponent in a Feb. 6 game against Kingston … The WHL’s Calgary Hitmen tied a franchise record by reaching the 100-point plateau last week in just 59 games … The QMJHL’s Drummondville Voltigeurs set a record for their surge from worst to first. After finishing at the bottom of the league standings last season, the Voltigeurs have already set the benchmark with an improvement of 60 points from one season to the next … The Kootenay Ice extended the contracts of head coach Mark Holick and his staff through 2010-2011.