The Halifax Mooseheads and Moncton Wildcats may be bitter rivals, but mutual respect and even admiration underlines their meeting on Friday Night Hockey.
The Mooseheads are the top-ranked team from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the latest installment of the BMO CHL Top 10 rankings, and sit second-overall behind the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. Moncton head coach and director of hockey operations, Danny Flynn, knows his team won’t find a more difficult test than this one.
"Every NHL scout I talk to says they’re the most talented team in the country and who can argue with that with the firepower that they have and the depth they have on the back-end and a first round NHL goalie," he said. "They’ve got an awful lot of weapons and an awful lot of talent."
The Wildcats made the biggest splash at this year’s trade deadline, adding Canadian world junior forward Phillip Danault to center the team’s top line between Dmitrij Jaskin and Ivan Barbashev. Moncton won its first nine games since Danault’s acquisition, making what was already a deep and talented team even more difficult to prepare for as an opposing coach.
"He’s a good player so he makes them even better," Halifax head coach Dominique Ducharme said. "They play a solid, collective game. They are reliable defensively and they have fire up front so we need to bring our A game against them."
The Mooseheads will provide the Wildcats with as good a measuring stick as they will have this season, which is nothing new for the Mooseheads.
"We started with a target on our back," Ducharme acknowledged. "It’s good for us because it’s a good preparation for the playoffs."
Flynn can recognize and even appreciate the Mooseheads’ rise to the top after several lean years in Nova Scotia’s capital.
"They sat at the bottom quarter of the league for three or four years and slowly built their team," Flynn said. "They took an awful lot of criticism while doing so, but stuck to their plan and, as a result, after three or four tough years, have a team full of a lot of early picks and a lot of exceptional talent."
THE STARS: Jaskin is perhaps the hottest player in major junior right now. Since Danault’s arrival in early January, the Czech forward has 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points in 10 games. Jaskin, whose first game back from the world juniors coincided with Danault’s first game in a Wildcat uniform, found instant chemistry with his new linemate.
"Both of them arrived at the same time," Flynn noted. "One top player in junior makes a difference and two makes a huge difference, especially when they’re two players that are world junior level players."
MacKinnon, who was a teammate of Danault’s on Canada’s world junior team, returned to Halifax motivated to make the second half a special one for his team. He has 16 points in his 10 games since returning from Ufa, Russia.
It’s been a busy year for MacKinnon and teammate Jonathan Drouin, another member of Canada’s world junior team, and Ducharme acknowledged the path just makes his players even more motivated to succeed.
"They’re just hungrier about the future, about what’s coming up," he said. "They’re two kids that like to be put in situations to make a difference. They like to be playing in big games and they want to do it here."
PLAYERS DRAFTED BY NHL TEAMS
Moncton, C – Phillip Danault, Chicago Blackhawks (26th overall, R1, 2011)
Moncton, LW – Dmitrij Jaskin, St. Louis Blues (41st overall, R2, 2011)
Moncton, D – Jonathan Racine, Florida Panthers (87th overall, R3, 2011)
Moncton, D – James Melindy, Phoenix Coyotes (88th overall, R3, 2012)
Moncton, RW – Yannick Veilleux, St. Louis Blues (102nd overall, R4, 2011)
Halifax, RW – Martin Frk, Detroit Red Wings (49th overall, R2, 2012)
Halifax, D – Konrad Abeltshauser, San Jose Sharks (163rd overall, R6, 2010)
Halifax, RW – Stephen MacAulay, St. Louis Blues (164th overall, R6, 2010)
NAMES TO WATCH: Drouin asserted himself this season as another challenger for the top of the NHL draft class. Although the consensus is between MacKinnon and Portland defenceman Seth Jones, Drouin has come a long way considering he’s been playing major junior for barely a calendar year.
"He improved everywhere," Ducharme said. "He’s faster, he’s stronger, he’s more confident, he’s a kid that adapts really quickly. We see him last year, he was getting better and better and better and gaining more confidence."
Barbashev, the first-overall pick in last summer’s CHL import draft, really came on after joining Danault and Jaskin’s line. His progression has been impressive this season and his talent is shining through, showing why NHL scouts are excited about his potential. As a late-1995 birthday, Barbashev only turned 17 seven weeks ago.
"For his age and for the adjustments he’s had to go through coming to a new country and to a new style of play, I think he’s played extremely well," Flynn said. "Now we’ve asked him to change positions; he’s playing left wing for the first time in his life, but he’s made that adjustment and getting more comfortable week by week."
POTENTIAL FUTURE NHL DRAFT PICKS:
Halifax, C – Nathan MacKinnon, Eligible in 2013
Halifax, LW – Jonathan Drouin, Eligible in 2013
Halifax, G – Zachary Fucale, Eligible in 2013
Halifax, D – Matt Murphy, Eligible in 2013
Halifax, RW – Ryan Falkenham, Eligible in 2014
Moncton, LW – Ivan Barbashev, Eligible in 2014
THE GOALIES: Zachary Fucale may not receive the same press as his teammates, but the starting goaltender is largely considered a first-round pick for this summer’s NHL draft. Fucale is a big-game goalie who instills confidence in his teammates, even if they could stand to do a better job in front of him.
"We don’t want to be gambling too much and having him by himself back there," Ducharme said. "Sometimes, it’s not only about the number of shots, but it’s the quality of shots and we did a good job on that last weekend. He’s confident, he’s playing his best hockey right now and he’s obviously bringing confidence to our team and to his teammates."
Consistency often plagued Moncton’s Alex Dubeau in his first season as an undisputed starter. The former Shawinigan Cataracte has been solid in his last seven starts, including posting two shutouts.
"Alex is competitor and works hard at his game and he takes a lot of pride in his game," Flynn said. "He was inconsistent at the start, but so was our team and I knew that — we had a lot of new faces and a lot of people in new roles. I knew there would be some time as a team to gel and the team to kind of become a team.
"But Alex’s game has really taken off in the last little while and couldn’t have come at a better time and now he’s at the top of his game."
WHAT’S AT STAKE: The Wildcats trail the Mooseheads by 20 points with 17 games left in their schedule, which means catching them at this point is unrealistic. Since the Wildcats won’t finish first in the Maritimes Division, focus shifts towards improving habits, finishing strong and topping the group of non-divisional winners to obtain the fourth seed.
"We want to use these last 17 games to try and make significant improvements in our team," Flynn said. "There’s so many good teams in this league, you’re going to run into a tough team in every round and we have to take advantage of these last 17 games to try and improve and become a better team as we head into the playoffs because this is the toughest league I’ve seen since I’ve been here."
Ducharme motivates his team not by the standings, which they lead the next closest team by 11 points, but by slanting their game upwards each week.
"We know where we are right now (in the standings)," he said. "Our focus remains the same, on getting better and making sure from game to game, we polish our game."