With the Memorial Cup right around the corner, six teams battle it out for the right to punch their tickets to Rimouski, Que. in two weeks. Sportsnet.ca provides a comprehensive preview of each league championship series noting each team’s strengths and a matchup within the game that could determine the league winners.
Québec Major Junior Hockey League
Drummondville Voltigeurs vs. Shawinigan Cataractes
Drummondville regular season record: 54-10-0-4 (112 points)
Shawinigan regular season record: 51-14-3-0 (105 points)
Regular season series: Shawinigan 5-2-1-0
Drummondville league championships: None
Shawinigan league championships: None
The league championship series between Drummondville and Shawinigan won’t be short on animosity as these two teams are about as bitter rivals as can be found in any league. The Cataractes were one of just two teams to have won the season series against the Voltigeurs, the other being the Gatineau Olympiques who won two of three meetings.
Shawinigan held the early edge in the season series in large part due to their goaltender, Timo Pielmeier as it took Drummondville three games until they could figure him out consistently. Pielmeier’s save percentage in the first three wins was a sparkling 0.961 while it dropped to 0.894 in the four games since. While Shawinigan held the edge in the season series, Drummondville spoiled the party with a 3-2 win on Dec. 18, an important game for the Cataractes as it was the last game at their former rink, the Aréna Jacques Plante.
The Telus Central Division rivals, whose towns are separated by a mere hour and 15 minute drive, aren’t strangers in the playoffs. This will be the seventh time they meet in the playoffs with both teams having won three times. The Voltigeurs gained their first playoff victory in franchise history by beating the Cataractes in six games in the opening round of the 1984 playoffs. Shawinigan, meanwhile, holds the edge in the last two meetings, winning in seven in 2004 and in five in 2002. This year’s series will mark the first time they meet beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Drummondville is about as hot as a team can be entering this series, having won all 12 games through three rounds. Their series sweep over the Memorial Cup host Rimouski Océanic was more shocking than surprising. Drummondville has won 20 of their last 21 games, playoffs and regular season combined. Their power-play has operated at an astonishing 40.2 per cent in the playoffs.
The key to the Voltigeurs attack is their depth and puck pressure. On any given night, any player on the Voltigeurs can step up and score a big goal. Yannick Riendeau is their main threat, a pin-point accurate scorer who has 19 goals through 12 playoff games. Christopher DiDomenico, Dany Massé and Mike Hoffman are the other main threats offensively. The wildcard is goaltender Marco Cousineau who has yet to steal a game for his team and still has room for improvement.
The Shawinigan Cataractes knew the road to the final would be tougher after finishing second behind Drummondville in the standings. The Cataractes, despite having the second best record in the league, became the fifth seed due to the QMJHL’s playoff format. Shawinigan seemed unfazed by the task at hand, however, steamrolling through the playoffs with a 12-2 record. The Cataractes swept the Victoriaville Tigres in the first round before beating both Gatineau and Québec in five the next two rounds.
Like their opponents, the Cataractes boast a talented offensive team with the ability to score from every line. Their go-to scorers are Cédric Lalonde-McNicoll, Matthew Pistilli and Nicholas Petersen. Veteran forward Maxime Legault was an unlikely hero in the last series with Québec, scoring four times. The Cataractes’ defence brings a solid mix of puck-rushing ability, big point shot and physical, stay-at-home style. Quite simply, their defence was built to sustain a series against a team like Drummondville. The most telling part of their team will come in goal where Timo Pielmeier is considered by some the best goalie in the league. While he has been solid, a bigger effort will be required against a potent offensive team like Drummondville.
Key matchup: Yannick Riendeau (Dru) vs. Timo Pielmeier (Sha)
The overage sniper, Riendeau, has terrorized goalies ever since his pre-season trade from Rouyn-Noranda. The Drummondville power-play operates around his ability to finish plays in tight, often from cross-crease tap-ins. He’s a very slippery forward whose accurate shot makes him hard to defend.
Pielmeier has been solid in the playoffs to date but not spectacular. His team appeared willing to trade chances offensively in previous series since they know he can bail them out. He was a main reason behind his team’s ability to win the season series with the Voltigeurs and will need to be just as good in the playoffs as he was in the first three meetings. If he’s not completely on his game, players like Riendeau will find ways to beat him.
Ontario Hockey League
Windsor Spitfires vs. Brampton Battalion
Windsor regular season record: 57-10-0-1 (115 points)
Brampton regular season record: 47-19-1-1 (96 points)
Regular season series: Windsor 2-0-0-0
Windsor league championships: One (1988)
Brampton league championships: None
These two teams met just twice in the regular season with Windsor taking both games. The Spitfires came from behind to win 5-3 on Oct. 9 while also taking a 6-3 decision on Jan. 4. Not an awful lot can be read into the season series given how long it has been since both teams played each other. The Spitfires haven’t faced the Battalion since Brampton acquired all-world goalie Thomas McCollum while they were also without forwards Cody Hodgson and Evgeny Grachev in their last meeting, both away at the world juniors.
Ironically, the two are linked by an early season hearing which awarded them their Russian imports. The Spitfires began the season without Andrei Loktionov, a valuable player in their playoff run while the same hearing awarded Brampton their star and rookie of the year, Grachev. These two teams have never met in the playoffs, in large part because they play in opposite conferences. Brampton began their first four seasons in the Western Conference before joining the East after the North Bay Centennials moved to Saginaw.
Windsor won the thrilling series against the London Knights in the Western Conference finals, taking the series in five games. Many felt the two teams were fairly even, as evidenced by the fact all five games went to overtime. The young Spitfires appear to have learned how to thrive in playoff hockey.
The Spitfires boast one of the deepest offensive teams in the Canadian Hockey League with sophomore snipers Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis. The duo is tied with 27 points for the lead in playoff scoring, along with Brampton’s Cody Hodgson. Dale Mitchell, acquired as part of the Michal Neuvirth trade to Oshawa a year ago, has provided the team with plenty of veteran leadership and offensive production. The surprise has been forward Eric Wellwood, younger brother of Vancouver’s Kyle, who scored two game-winners in the last series against London. Goaltender Andrew Engelage was solid but not spectacular and will face another strong offensive team in Brampton.
The Battalion aren’t quite as loaded up front offensively as the Spitfires but have just as many dynamic top-end scorers with Hodgson, Grachev, and top prospect Matt Duchene. Hodgson, a late cut by the Vancouver Canucks and this year’s Most Outstanding Player, has shown why the Canucks took so long in determining whether to keep him around this season. Brampton’s captain is a lethal scorer in close and has made a habit of scoring big goals in the playoffs.
Grachev may not be the most eager to pass the puck but his accurate shot makes up for it. He has been a dangerous threat all playoffs while Duchene’s performance may have moved him up the draft charts. Duchene is perhaps the quickest skater in the OHL and is hard to contain when he drives wide around defenders. As good as the Battalion offence has been, the most telling factor for their success may just be the play of McCollum. While he has struggled with consistency in the playoffs, he came up big when needed in the series with Belleville. There will be little room for error in this series for McCollum as the Windsor offence is as lethal as he will see in junior.
Key matchup: Ryan Ellis (Wsr) vs. Cody Hodgson (Bra)
Teammates on the gold-medal winning Canadian world junior team, Ellis and Hodgson will provide an intriguing storyline in this series. Ellis possesses one of the hardest and most accurate point shots in the game and has the ability to lead the rush on any given play. His defence is very underrated, as is his physical presence, two aspects of his game that will be under the microscope for the draft eligible prospect.
Hodgson is the consummate leader, a true professional in everything he does on and off the ice. Every player who has played with or against him has a great deal of respect for him and all that he brings. While he’s not his team’s only offensive threat, a large part of his team’s success will revolve around his ability to provide the clutch scoring he has provided to this point. If he can continue his torrid pace, it will give Ellis and his Spitfires all they can handle in the winner-take-all final.
Western Hockey League
Calgary Hitmen vs. Kelowna Rockets
Calgary regular season record: 59-9-3-1 (122 points)
Kelowna regular season record: 47-21-1-3 (98 points)
Regular season series: Tied 1-1
Calgary league championships: One (1999)
Kelowna league championships: Two (2003 and 2005)
The season series ended in a tie as both teams found a way to win in the other team’s building. The Hitmen defeated Kelowna 4-3 on Dec. 14, a game in which both teams were missing some key players. Calgary forward Brett Sonne and Kelowna forward Jamie Benn were both in Ottawa at the Canadian world junior camp while the Rockets starting goaltender was Kris Lazaruk, who is no longer with the team.
Both teams made several key additions before their last meeting on Feb. 28. Kelowna acquired former Hitmen forward Ian Duval, goaltender Mark Guggenberger and Swedish forward Mikael Backlund, a late addition from the Calgary Flames. Not to be outdone, the Hitmen added the league’s top goal scorer, Joel Broda, and the resurgent Kris Foucault. Kelowna’s 2-1 win was one of only four losses at home for the Hitmen all season.
As the Western Hockey League playoff picture is decided by conference play, the Hitmen and Rockets will meet for the first time in the playoffs. Calgary defeated the Kamloops Blazers in their only final appearance in 1999. The Rockets beat the Red Deer Rebels for the championship in 2003 then the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2005′s final.
The Hitmen are as hot as can be, having won all 12 playoff games to date. Calgary swept Edmonton, Lethbridge and Brandon en route to their first Eastern Conference crown since their league championship season in 1999. Perhaps the scariest aspect of their game is the ability to score from every line. An example of that came in the last series where Ian Schultz, one of their unsung heroes, scored the overtime winner against Brandon in Game 3.
Calgary has a very calm and quiet confidence about their team, knowing they can come back from any situation. Their top shooters are Broda, Foucault, Sonne and Brandon Kozun while defenceman Paul Postma had an impressive season offensively. Goaltender Martin Jones may have been a question mark entering the season but has not disappointed behind a big and physical crop of defencemen. The Hitmen advanced this far due to their depth at scoring and their attention to detail. Calgary doesn’t allow much in the way of scoring chances and have the presence of mind and size on the back-end to limit second-chance opportunities.
The Rockets are a dangerous team that has just been getting better and better as the season wears on. Kelowna was pegged to have a solid team this season, in spite of losing defensive ace Luke Schenn to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Rockets underachieved early but hit full stride shortly after the holiday break, quickly becoming one of the most feared teams in the league. The Rockets swept Kamloops in the opening round and rallied from two games down against Tri-City to take the series in six contests. Their six game series win over Vancouver to take the Western Conference championship is an example of their high-end potential.
Like Calgary, Kelowna is blessed with offensive depth. Benn and Backlund are the two most gifted forwards and have proven their ability to perform in clutch situations. Benn scored the first goal in the comeback for Kelowna against Vancouver in Game 6 late in the third period. Backlund provided the overtime heroics after scoring a highlight reel goal in the second. Duval is a speedy winger with finishing abilities while captain Colin Long and Cody Almond are also potent inside the faceoff circle. Guggenberger provided Kelowna with the stability they were seeking in goal while their defence is a solid blend of size, mobility and defensive prowess. Tyler Myers is a strong two-way defender while Tyson Barrie is a lethal power-play quarterback.
Key matchup: Martin Jones (Cal) vs. Mark Guggenberger (Kel)
With both teams possessing such depth in scoring, the goaltenders will need to raise their level of play in the final. Jones hasn’t had the busiest of playoffs, in spite of facing some offensively-gifted teams in Brandon and Lethbridge. However, the Wheat Kings and Hurricanes aren’t as strong offensively as the high-flying Rockets who will provide him with his biggest test.
After sharing the crease in Swift Current earlier this season, Guggenberger earned the opportunity as a starter once acquired by the Rockets. The first-time starter certainly hasn’t disappointed as his solid and dependable play has been the backbone of the Rockets’ post-season run. He posted back-to-back shutouts over Vancouver in the last series and is always there to make a key save when his team needs it. This series has the makings of being high-scoring if the goaltenders aren’t on their game. Whichever goaltender can make the key saves at the important moments in close games will be representing their league in the Memorial Cup in Rimouski.