SHAWINIGAN, Que. — With all their skill and speed, the powerhouse Saint John Sea Dogs are not about to start trying to slow games down.
But coach Gerard Gallant said Thursday his team knows how to protect a lead.
An example came in the Sea Dogs’ final round robin game at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, when they took a three-goal and closed out a 4-1 victory over the host Shawinigan Cataractes.
Afterward, Shawinigan coach Eric Veilleux looked surprised when he said "it’s rare to see Saint John shut down the play, but they did a good job."
That brought a smile from Gallant, whose team usually is all about talent and keeping the game at a high pace.
"Don’t get me wrong, we practice the trap a little bit," Gallant said. "But when it’s 3-1, I want our guys to keep going, but to make sure our defencemen aren’t pinching and to make sure we have a high forward (one staying back in the attacking zone). I don’t want to sit back.
"We’re never scared. We’re responsible. You see our defencemen, it’s 3-1 and they’re still in the rush, they still play the game. We just keep giving them reminders that we don’t want odd-man rushes. Play the game smart."
The victory put Saint John into the semifinals, where they will meet the winner of Thursday night’s contest between Shawinigan and the Western Hockey League champion Edmonton Oil Kings. The Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, a strictly defence-first club, has earned a bye to the final on Sunday night.
The Sea Dogs have been perhaps Canada’s most gifted junior team for three seasons, but they lost in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs to Moncton in 2010 before roaring back to take their first Memorial Cup last spring.
Most of the same players are back this year, including Florida’s third-overall draft pick Jonathan Huberdeau, who leads the tournament with four goals, defence ace Nathan Beaulieu and NHL first-rounder Zach Phillips.
With two of the best scoring lines in junior hockey and a mobile puck-moving defence, the Sea Dogs simply aren’t built for clogging the neutral zone, although they may have lapsed into a version of that as Shawinigan mounted heavy pressure in the third period.
"When you’re not a trapping team and you start to do something you’re not familiar with, you make mistakes," said Gallant. "Then Shawinigan’s in your zone and putting pressure on you.
"It changes the game. The game was going fine for us at 3-1, so why change a whole lot? We just tried to play it a little smarter."
Gallant was in a good mood the day after the win over the team that finished second to Saint John in the regular season.
The Cataractes’ arena, the Bionest Centre, was jammed and the noise level was deafening, but his team stayed calm and quieted things somewhat by taking an early lead on a slick combination between first-line stars Huberdeau and Charlie Coyle.
The Sea Dogs opened the tournament with a dismal loss to London in which little effort was evident, but played progressively better in the next two outings. They look to be reaching cruising speed just in time for the single-game knockout portion of the tournament.
The loss looks to have woken them up.
"I think it did," the third-year coach said. "I’d definitely like to be going right to the final, but we’re playing good the last two games.
"We’re in pretty good position. We’re happy, we’re rested. Our schedule has been same — one day off (between games) all week, so we’re in a good situation."
It has also helped that the ice conditions have improved dramatically since the start of the event. Warm weather, large crowds and extra television lighting in the building combined to produce soft, slushy ice in the early games that worked against teams that play with speed and finesse.
Since then, game-day skates were moved to another rink, dehumidifiers were installed and entrances to the seating areas closed off during the day to keep the rink cool and the ice noticeably harder.
"They did a great job with the ice," said Gallant. "There were some minor issues at first, and some people (including Gallant) weren’t happy because it caused a lot of turnovers, but the ice was really good last night.
"For our club, knowing what I hear from the kids, in the first game it was mental. They were talking more about that than the hockey game. But it’s got better every day so the kids are really excited. It helps our club for sure."
There was old-time hockey action at the end of the game against Shawinigan. Three separate melees broke out in the final minute as frustration boiled over from the home team and its fans, some of whom threw beer cans onto the ice. Even Gallant got hit in the back of the head with a can, although happily for the coach it was empty.
Veilleux got into a shouting match at the bench with Saint John’s coaches.
On Thursday, organizers fined each team $2,500 for "conduct prejudicial to the welfare of the game and the tournament."
"We don’t do a lot of fighting, but we can respond any way you like," said Gallant. "We’ve got big guys that play physical at times.
"Our game is about puck movement, speed and skill, but we never shy away from the other stuff."