QMJHL Playoffs Preview: Top seeds should roll

Francis Perron. (Getty Images)

The QMJHL may as well give out participation ribbons to teams finishing in 15th and 16th place. For the past five seasons the league’s playoff format has paired off the regular season champ against the 16th-place team, No. 2 vs. 15 and so on.

The bottom two playoff teams have won a grand total of one game—Chicoutimi over Moncton in 2015. Basically good luck to the Sherbrooke (15th) and Drummondville (16th), you’ll need it. Still, upsets can happen.

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Last season, the Gatineau Olympiques finished in 14th place, but entered the playoffs with an 8-1-0-1 record. The Olympiques faced the third place Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, who finished 23 points ahead in the standings, and sent the Armada home in six games. Even the 2015 MasterCard Memorial Cup host Québec Remparts narrowly escaped the first round after a game-seven win over the 13th-place Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.

History is on the top seeds' side. But it’s the playoffs and anything can happen. Check out our preview of seeds five through eight. Here's what to expect from the four big boys:

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (1) vs. Drummondville Voltigeurs (16)

In the CHL’s Top 10 rankings in mid-October, the Voltigeurs were ranked 4th, three spots above the Huskies. It was a short fling, with the Volts peaking after three weeks in the top 10. By November, head coach Martin Raymond and assistant Louis Robitaille were shown the door as the team fell apart. The Huskies on the other hand entered long-term-relationship status with the CHL Top 10, spending 24 weeks in the rankings and finishing first in the final Week 25 list.

The Huskies enter the playoffs on a 14-game winning streak and there’s no sign of slowing down. They were aggressive over the trading period, acquiring power-forward Timo Meier, high-scoring defenceman Nikolas Brouillard and saw A.J. Greer leave Boston University in his sophomore season and make his CHL debut. It’s Memorial Cup or bust for the Huskies.

An upset, you say?
Drummondville will need to find a time machine that goes back to October if they have even a shimmer of hope. Michael Carcone, a training camp invitee in 2014, came out of nowhere to score 25 percent of the Volt’s goals with 47. He’ll need to carry the team on his back.

And the winner is...
Rouyn-Noranda in four.

Shawinigan Cataractes (2) vs. Sherbrooke Phoenix (15)

Both Shawinigan and Sherbrooke underwent coaching in-season changes. Sitting in 13th place in December, the Phoenix canned both their general manager and head coach. Bringing in Guillaume Gauthier and Julien Pelletier was an indication Sherbrooke was heading into win-now mode. Considering they finished in 15th place, it’s safe to say the season has been a complete failure (yours truly predicted they’d finish first in the West Division. Oops.)

The Cataractes were in second place when head coach Martin Bernard was fired on Feb. 17. A handful of losses to bottom-dwellers played a major factor in the surprising decision. The team finished the season 9-2-0-1 under new coach Claude Bouchard and should keep rolling against the Phoenix. The team brought in Dmytro Timashov, Danny Moynihan, Gabriel Gagné and Cavan Fitzgerald, adding even more firepower to an already dangerous lineup.

Dmytro Timashov; Shawinigan Cataractes; Toronto Maple Leafs; 2015 NHL Draft; QMJHL; CHL; Sportsnet
Timashov was one of the QMJHL's biggest trade-period pick-ups this season. (Judith St-Pierre)

One player to keep an eye on is Ottawa Senators second-rounder Gabriel Gagné. He missed the first half of the season with an injury and struggled in his return. The 6-foot-5, 187-lb. forward finished March with four goals and five assists and was playing with New York Islanders first-rounder Anthony Beauvillier. Gagné is a beast around the net and could play a huge role for the team during the playoff grind.

The Cataractes finished the regular season with best power play, clicking at 29.1 percent. The pressure is on in Shawinigan where anything but a Memorial Cup berth is a failure.

An upset, you say?
Defenceman Jérémy Roy has been out with an injury since Feb. 21 and his first-round status is up in the air. The 31st-overall pick of the 2015 draft by the San Jose Sharks anchors the power play unit and is needed to spark the underachieving team.

And the winner is...
Shawinigan in four.

Saint John Sea Dogs (3) vs. Acadie-Bathurst Titan (14)

After an underwhelming first half, the John Sea Dogs had a 13-0-2 streak starting in late January. The hot stretch coupled with a Moncton Wildcats free-fall allowed the Sea Dogs to jump in and grab top spot in the Maritimes Division. The team is loaded with NHL prospects including two first-round defenceman, Thomas Chabot and Jakub Zboril.

Thomas Chabot; CHL; QMJHL; Saint John Sea Dogs; Ottawa Senators; 2015 NHL Draft; QMJHL Playoffs; Sportsnet
Chabot was was fourth in points per game among blueliners at 0.957. (Francois Laplante/Getty)

The Sea Dogs continue to knock it out of the park when it comes to free-agent signings. After spending three seasons in the OHL, Sam Povorozniouk had 39 goals as an overager and Daniel Del Paggio had a 20-goal, 55-point season in his second year with the team. The emergence of these players gives Saint John scoring depth making them such a dangerous threat.

Bringing in experienced D-man Matt Murphy helped elevate the defensive play of draft-eligible prospect Luke Green (who will miss a couple weeks after a nasty hit from Pierre-Luc Dubois, who received a two-game suspension for the hit). Murphy has 54 playoff games under his belt and was part of the MasterCard Memorial Cup host Remparts squad last season. His calming influence and smart play could carry this team deep into the playoffs.

An upset, you say?
Speaking of invitees, the Sea Dogs signed goaltender Alex Bishop last season after he began the year in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Overager Marc-Antoine Turcotte came over in a pre-draft trade after joining the Armada as a free agent.

Neither goalie has any QMJHL playoff experience. Acadie-Bathurst on the other hand has Reilly Pickard who is coming off second-star of the week honours from the QMJHL and goalie of the week from the CHL. He also has zero games of playoff experience but his 47-save win over Moncton to close out the season showed he can steal games. Still, the team finished the season 3-7-0 so it’s hard to see an upset happening here.

And the winner is...
Saint John in five.

Val-d’Or Foreurs (4) vs. Blainville-Boisbriand Armada (13)

The trading period felt like an arms race with top teams Shawinigan, Rouyn-Noranda, Moncton and Gatineau all making big moves. Val-d’Or brought in defenceman David Henley but didn’t add a major scoring weapon. The team finished second in the league with 293 goals and had six forwards with 50-plus points.

Goaltender Etienne Montpetit’s 39 wins were most in the ‘Q’. He was tied for first with four shutouts, had the third best save percentage (0.907) and sixth best GAA (2.71). The result was Val-d’Or finishing with a goal differential of 97, second-best and a league-high PDO of 102.59 according to Prospect-Stats.com.

Nashville Predators prospect Anthony Richard finished the season with 87-points, but went down with an injury at the beginning of March and the team announced he’d miss four weeks. That timeline makes it a possibility he returns at the end of the first round depending on how long the series goes.

Projected first-rounder Julien Gauthier cooled off in March, only scoring two goals after scoring 39 in his first 45 games. If he can’t start scoring again while Richard is out of the lineup, the matchup against Blainville-Boisbriand could be challenging. The team enters the playoffs 5-4-1-0 in its past 10 games.

Julien Gauthier; Val-d'Or Foreurs; QMJHL; 2016 NHL Draft; QMJHL Playoffs; Sportsnet
Draft-eligible Gauthier finished fourth in goals per game at 0.759. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty)

An upset, you say?
After winning the division last season, the Armada took a step back after losing 100-point overages Danick Martel and Nikita Jevpalovs. In nets they have Samuel Montembeault, a Florida Panthers prospect who was on the Canadian world junior team in a backup role in December.

Despite playing for a low scoring team—171 goals, second fewest in the league—Montembeault was top 10 in GAA and save percentage. The team also got Philippe Sanche back for the last four games of the regular season. Small, but mighty, the 5-foot-5, 152-pounder was leading the team in scoring before a fractured leg kept him out of action for close to four months. If Sanche can quickly return to form and Montembeault steals a few games, they could be a tough opponent.

And the winner is...
Val-d’Or in five