FNH: Mooseheads, Wildcats renew rivalry

Jonathan Drouin. (Liam Richards/CP)

The MasterCard Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads get another shot at the Moncton Wildcats on Friday Night Hockey.

The Mooseheads’ roster is taking shape after the departure of Nathan MacKinnon to the Colorado Avalanche, but the return of Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning gave them a shot in the arm offensively. Drouin, last year’s CHL player of the year, greatly increased the Mooseheads’ odds of another deep playoff run and will pose a formidable foe for the young Wildcats.

“To bring a guy like him back, we never made plans about that,” says Mooseheads head coach Dominique Ducharme. “Obviously, when you add a player of his calibre, it helps everyone because everyone goes back in their roles. It was a big addition for our team.”

What’s on the line?

A great divide exists between the defending champs and everyone else in the Maritimes Division. Although early, the Mooseheads have already staked claim with a big lead on the rest of the pack, and asserted themselves as a threat to repeat as league champs.

It’s early enough in the season where no lead is insurmountable, but a win for the young Wildcats would not only help them keep pace but give the young group confidence they can compete with the league’s elite.

Ducharme, meanwhile, continues toting a familiar line about getting better every game and using the regular season as a preparation for the playoffs.

This was considered a burgeoning rivalry last season, when the Wildcats revamped their roster in anticipation of a deep playoff run that unexpectedly ended in a five-game upset to Victoriaville.

Although not historic rivals, venom was spewed when Wildcats forward Ross Johnston appeared to accidentally break Mooseheads defenceman Brian Lovell’s jaw in a regular season game last season. Johnston may be in Victoriaville now, but the battle lines between these two franchises were drawn then and still exist.

Key matchup

Zachary Fucale vs. Alex Dubeau

The game features two of the top goaltenders in the league with Halifax’s Zachary Fucale and Moncton’s Alex Dubeau. Fucale has the pedigree with a national championship, a high draft selection last June and the label as one of Canada’s next great stars in the goaltending fraternity.

For all the hype, Fucale’s numbers never quite seem to match his level of success. Part of the explanation stems from his team’s confidence in him, and their sometimes lackadaisical approach to defence. He doesn’t always face a lot of shots, but the quality of the scoring chances he faces gives some credence to his reputation ahead of his statistics.

“He came back from Montreal’s camp and was excited to be back, always stepping on the ice with energy,” Ducharme says. “He’s really taken attention to little details.”

Dubeau was given the ball in Moncton last season and faltered on an underachieving team. This is essentially a make or break year for him, and so far he’s taken his game to new levels. He’s a fiery competitor — although sometimes too fiery when opponents crash his crease — but is providing so much stability for the young team that head coach Darren Rumble proclaimed Dubeau the Wildcats’ MVP so far this year.

“Without question, he’s one of the top three goalies in the league,” Rumble says. “It’s his competitiveness, his professionalism and then he backs that up with his character and his skill level. Off the ice, he should have one of our letters; he’s clearly one of our leaders and most dedicated players off the ice.”

Players to Watch

Moncton: C, Ivan Barbashev
Barbashev is off to a red-hot start in Moncton in his second season in North America. He’s considered a first round talent for the upcoming draft and is, as Rumble puts it, a “can’t-miss NHL player” who brings more than just his skill set to the table.

“He can play a physical game, can play a skill game,” Rumble says. “He could be captain. There’s not too many Russians that come over here and are in the discussion as far as being a captain. He could be captain no problem and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him be a captain of an NHL team some day. His teammates love him.”

Halifax: LW, Jonathan Drouin
Drouin is making up for missed time with 23 points in 12 games since being sent back to Halifax by Tampa Bay. Though disappointing to be sent back to junior at first, Drouin is now focusing on bringing another championship to Halifax and making sure he improves enough on his defensive play that it doesn’t hold him back from the Lightning lineup next fall.

“Mentally – especially at first – it was a challenge (being sent down), but we can see that he has turned the page and the focus is on improving his game, helping us win games and getting ready for next September,” Ducharme says. “I’m happy to see the way he’s improving.”

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