Nathan MacKinnon leads the Halifax Mooseheads against the team that drafted him, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, in Game 1 of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s President Cup final on Friday Night Hockey.
MacKinnon, the first-overall pick by Baie-Comeau in the 2011 QMJHL draft, is enjoying a productive playoff with his hometown team. The Mooseheads are a perfect 12-0 through three rounds of playoffs, which underlines the approach taken by head coach Dominique Ducharme.
“We took our 68 games to get ready for the playoffs and basically prepare ourselves and (the players) are just continuing on what we worked on all year,” he said. “We’re trying to be as perfect as we can be and there’s always things to improve. We keep playing with the same philosophy where we want to be getting better and better from one game to the other.”
The Drakkar finished second overall in the standings with 93 points, 27 fewer than the top-ranked Mooseheads. Their road to the league championship series included sweeps over Sherbrooke and Victoriaville, along with an entertaining six-game series with Blainville-Boisbriand.
There was much less hype surrounding the Drakkar this season, but they’ve proven to be one of junior hockey’s best from the outset. They play a gritty style and are solid defensively, but bring a lunch pail mentality, according to head coach Eric Veilleux.
“That’s been our goal since July, the first time I spoke to the guys,” Veilleux said. “Every season you want to give yourself a chance to win a championship and right now, we’re exactly where we want to be. We have a chance, we’re very fortunate and we’ll make the very best of it.”
THE STARS: MacKinnon is getting better as the games become more meaningful in the playoffs. He had three four-point games in the series sweep over the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the semifinals and is third in playoff scoring with 28 points in 12 games.
“He’s a guy that wants to make the difference,” Ducharme said. “Nathan just brought his game to higher intensity, to just another level. He’s not only making the difference with points or goals, but also in all facets of the game.”
Drakkar captain Felix Girard is a consummate pro and the undisputed leader of his team. His coach raves about him and how Girard embodies everything he wants his team to represent.
“He’s the image of our hockey club,” Veilleux said. “You watch him play, you watch our hockey club play. He plays hard every shift, he’s played gritty, he can score, he’s good defensively, he’s a good, all-around player.”
NAMES TO WATCH: The only Moosehead with more points than MacKinnon is Jonathan Drouin. Like MacKinnon, Drouin is peaking at the right time with a five-game goal-scoring streak. He’s second in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 29 points in 12 games.
“He’s a guy that likes having challenges,” Ducharme noted. “He always wants to push his limits. He’s like Nathan – doing everything he can to help us win.”
Just like the Mooseheads, the Drakkar are a priority team for NHL scouts. Russian rookie Valentin Zykov is considered by many a first-round talent, while Jeremy Gregoire could be increasing his draft stock with a solid playoff.
Veilleux can count on one hand how many times he needed to push Zykov to play a more physical game. Zykov adapted quickly, and after a month or so, according to Veilleux, he was well-versed in the North American style.
“He’s playing with grit, he’s a good, two-way player, he can hit, he can take a hit, he likes getting pucks to the net and that’s his style,” Veilleux said. “He’s not flashy or anything like this. He just plays a good, North American-style of hockey. He just keeps doing what he did all year.”
THE GOALIES: Baie-Comeau took goalie Philippe Cadorette with their second pick in the 2011 draft, following the selection of MacKinnon. Although short in stature at five-foot-11 and 183 pounds, Cadorette plays with a chip on his shoulder and is making the most of his opportunity. He leads the league with a 1.69 goals against average and .933 save percentage in the playoffs.
“He’s been very good all year,” Veilleux said. “He’s been good during the playoffs, he’s been consistent and he, just like our hockey club, is playing the way we’ve been playing (as a team). All we need to do is keep that going.”
Zachary Fucale could be the first goalie drafted by an NHL team this summer. A two-year starter, Fucale instills a calming confidence in his teammates that belies his age.
“When you sit with him, you don’t feel you’re talking with a 17-year-old,” Ducharme said. “He’s been through so many experiences … he’s a mature kid. He’s playing well, he’s really confident and in control. It’s great to see the way he plays and the confidence he brings to our team.”
WHAT’S AT STAKE: The Mooseheads tied the league record with 58 wins in a season, establishing home-ice advantage for the playoffs. Ducharme, a quiet and soft-spoken coach, sends a message to his players that they can always improve and to avoid complacency or looking ahead.
“It’s nice to be in front of our fans and to get energized by the way they’re excited and supporting of the team, but for us, we’re not talking about home-ice advantage,” he said. “We’re talking about playing our best hockey and taking what we did against Rouyn and making it better. That’s how we approach it.”
The Drakkar aren’t in awe of their competition and are preparing similarly.
“I doubt we’ll be intimidated,” Veilleux said. “That’s not something that we think of, as number one… We’ve always had the approach of thinking about it one game at a time. Right now, getting ready for that first face-off. That’s it. Nothing else.”