QMJHL Playoff Preview: Don’t count on many first-round upsets

Sam Cosentino and RJ Broadhead discuss which teams are the favourites in the CHL playoffs.

The QMJHL’s playoff format leads to some pretty lopsided first-round matchups. The Saint John Sea Dogs finished the season with 102 points and play a Rimouski Océanic team that barely made the post-season and finished 43 points behind in the standings. But as the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada proved last year, anything can happen in the ‘Q’. The 13th seed knocked off a Val-d’Or Foreurs team that finished 40 points ahead in the regular season.

Here’s how the first round of the QMJHL playoffs is shaping up:

Saint John Sea Dogs (1) vs. Rimouski Océanic (16)

The Sea Dogs entered the season looking like the best team in the league on paper. After a couple blockbuster trades and a 102-point season, it’s Memorial Cup or bust for the top Dogs. Already featuring a loaded blueline with NHL first-rounders Thomas Chabot (Ottawa Senators, 18th overall, 2015) and Jakub Zboril (Boston Bruins, 13th overall), the team brought in Montreal Canadiens prospect Simon Bourque from the Rimouski Océanic.

Up front, Matthew Highmore had a breakout season with 34 goals and 89 points, paving the way for the undrafted centre to ink an entry-level contract with the Chicago Blackhawks in March. Overager Bokondji Imama, a Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, obliterated his previous career high of 13 goals by scoring 41 and is full of confidence headed into the playoffs.

Along with Bourque, Saint John acquired the best goalie available over the trading period by brining in Carolina Hurricanes prospect Callum Booth. And not to be outdone, big scoring centre Julien Gauthier came over from the Val-d’Or Foreurs after he finished playing for Canada at the world juniors.

Basically, this team is loaded with NHL prospects poised to go on a deep run on home ice all playoffs. Winning nine of its last 10 regular season games, Saint John enters the playoffs red-hot.

An upset, you say?

After finishing the season 2-6-1-1 in their final 10 games, the Océanic barely squeaked into the final playoff spot. One of the few highlights of the season was centre Tyler Bolland, who finished second in league scoring this season with 103 points. Thanks to his 48 goals, Rimouski finished 10th in goal scoring.

Bolland and winger Samuel Laberge are the only remaining members of the Océanic team that went to the Memorial Cup as ‘Q’ champs in 2015. To pull off an upset, Rimouski will need to stir up the ghosts of 2015 and bank on a miracle.

And the winner is…

Saint John in four.

 

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (2) vs. Halifax Mooseheads (15)

It’s a testament to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies’ depth that the team finished second in the QMJHL one year after winning the league and losing top scorers, defenceman and its starting goalie.

With more ice time, 20-year-old Antoine Waked broke out with a 39-goal, 80-point season to lead the Huskies. Colorado Avalanche prospect Jean-Christophe Beaudin also had 80 points in 65 contests but saw a slight regression from his 82 points in 58 games last season.

The Huskies gave up 181 goals, third-fewest in the league. The stingy blueline is anchored by the six-foot-five Philippe Myers (Philadelphia Flyers) and six-foot-three Jérémy Lauzon (Boston Bruins). Bruno-Carl Denis had a breakout year in his second season with the club with 46 points.

According to Prospect-Stats.com, Rouyn-Noranda has the leagues highest PDO at 102.46 and the third-best estimated Fenwick Close percentage at 55.15.

It was a close battle for the West Division title with the Huskies edging the Blainville-Boisbriand by one point. Rouyn-Noranda faltered in the final week of the season, losing three in a row, but prior to that had a 10-game winning streak.

An upset, you say?

A year after missing the playoffs, a young Halifax Mooseheads team showed promise this season. Swiss forward Nico Hischier looks like a lock to be a top pick in June’s NHL entry draft, in part because of a season where he led all rookies in goals with 38 and points with 86.

Halifax had a tough schedule down the stretch and struggled, only winning one game in its final 10 games in a slide that almost resulted in missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

And the winner is…

Rouyn-Noranda in four.

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Shawinigan Cataractes (3) vs. Val-d’Or Foreurs (14)

For the second year in a row, the Shawinigan Cataractes finished atop the East Division. The team is loaded with playoff experience after going to the QMJHL final and should be hungry after coming three wins short of the President Cup.

There was more continuity with the team this season. Last year, Shawinigan loaded up on players at the trade deadline and fired its coach near the end of the season. This year, the only major trade acquisition was six-foot-four centre Cameron Askew from the Moncton Wildcats.

The veteran core of Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Dennis Yan, Brandon Gignac, Alexis D’Aoust and Askew brings scoring prowess and experience.

On the blueline, Samuel Girard was the top scoring defenceman in the QMJHL for the second year in a row with 75 points. The Nashville Predators prospect picked up most of those points with 66 assists, but still led defencemen in primary assists with 38 according to Prospect-stats.

An upset, you say?

After five straight top-10 seasons, including a league title in 2014, the Val-d’Or Foreurs bottomed out and finished in 13th place. During the trading period, Val-d’Or moved its top scorers, including Gauthier to the Sea Dogs. The remaining team finished the season with a goal differential of minus-55, second worst in the QMJHL.

Third-year goalie Étienne Montpetit has 23 games of playoff experience and will need to steal the series for the Foreurs to stand a chance. Also, Val-d’Or closed out the season with a 2-1 shootout win over Shawinigan and beat them in overtime in January, so the Foreurs have some positives from the season to cling to.

And the winner is…

Shawinigan in five.

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Charlottetown Islanders (4) vs. Baie-Comeau Drakkar (13)

Despite posting the second-most points in the league with 96, the Charlottetown Islanders had to settle for fourth place with the top three spots going to division winners. The team received a major boost in January when Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Daniel Sprong returned from off-season shoulder surgery. In 31 games, the winger piled up 32 goals and led the league with a 1.03 goals per game and 1.90 points per game according to Prospect-Stats.

Ottawa Senators prospect Filip Chlapik bounced back from a sophomore slump with 91 points, proving his production wasn’t completely tied to Sprong. The team also went for broke at the trade deadline, bringing in 97-point player François Beauchemin, centre Alex Dostie and Adam Marsh up front. This deep forward group powered the Islanders to 303 goals, most in the league.

The team also bolstered the blueline by bringing in rugged two-way defenceman Nicolas Meloche, a 19-year-old Colorado Avalanche prospect with 43 games of playoff experience.

An upset, you say?

 A year after finishing dead last in the QMJHL and missing the playoffs completely, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar bounced back with a 13th-place finish. With the third overall pick of the 2016 CHL import draft, the Drakkar nabbed Ivan Chekhovich. The Russian proceeded to lead his team in scoring with 26 goals and 59 points. Gabriel Fortier, the fourth overall pick of the 2016 QMJHL entry draft, missed the first half of the season with an injury. The rookie showed signs of heating up down the stretch, scoring five of his 11 goals in March.

Baie-Comeau only played Charlottetown twice this year, managing to score 13 goals as the teams split the season series. Both games were before Sprong returned or the team loaded up at the trade deadline. Still, there’s a slim chance they can do some damage.

And the winner is…

Charlottetown in five.

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Blaineville-Boisbriand Armada (5) vs. Drummondville Voltiguers (12)

A year after upsetting Val-d’Or in the first round, the Armada have shed the Cinderella moniker and are expected to contend. The team made it clear it was going all-in with the acquisition of Pierre-Luc Dubois, the third overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets, after the world juniors. Dubois got off to a hot start with his new club, scoring nine goals in his first seven games, but cooled off after that. In his final 11 games, he only managed one goal along with eight assists. The six-foot-three, 202-lb. winger will need to show his game-changing abilities for the Armada to go deep.

Alex Barré-Boulet led the Armada with 81 points and will face his former team where he played three full seasons prior to a trade in January.

Florida Panthers top goaltending prospect Samuel Montembeault has the ability to win games single-handedly and posted a 2.40 GAA and career-best 0.907 SAV% over 41 games.

An upset, you say?

After a 10-game losing streak starting at the end of January, Drummondville showed signs of improvement by posting a 7-5-1-0 record the rest of the way. One of those wins was a 6-3 win over the Armada on March 15. The Voltiguers also had the fourth-best penalty kill in the league (81.5 per cent) and could cause problems for the Armada’s 10th-ranked power play (22.1 per cent).

And the winner is…

Blaineville-Boisbriand in six.

 

Acadie-Bathurst Titan (6) vs. Québec Remparts (11)

The Acadie-Bathurst Titan have been crushing opponents since the start of 2017, picking up 20 wins and only seven regulation losses. Fourth-year veteran Christophe Boivin led the way with 43 goals and 90 points, his second straight season with over 30 goals.

A key player to keep an eye on is NHL draft-eligible centre Antoine Morand. The sophomore had 74 points and had a 12-game point streak at the beginning of 2017, which is right around when the team really picked up steam.

The Titan finished third in QMJHL scoring with 284 goals and found balanced scoring with six 20-goal scorers. That doesn’t include six-foot-five, 192-lb. Latvian centre and Vancouver Canucks prospect Rodrigo Ābols, who joined the team in late October and had 18 goals.

A hot team with two solid goaltenders in Anthony Dumont-Bouchard and Reilly Pickard, this team looks to continue a hot 2017.

An upset, you say?

The Québec Remparts are still in rebuild mode after loading up two seasons ago as Memorial Cup hosts. Despite being sellers over the trading period, the Remparts still had a respectable 11th-place finish. The team struggled to close out the season with a 3-6-0-1 record in its final 10 games. Rookie Philipp Kurashev led the team with 54 points. The 2018 NHL draft-eligible Swiss forward slowed down after a 14-point November, but showed signs of heading up with goals in three of the final four Remparts games.

And the winner is…

Acadie-Bathurst in five

 

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (7) vs. Gatineau Olympiques (10)

The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles wrapped up the season with five straight wins, but it’s worth noting three came against the last-place Moncton Wildcats. Regardless, the team performed well this season after losing it’s top four scorers from the year before, including Pierre-Luc Dubois in a January trade.

Overage forward Giovanni Fiore was the only player in the league to crack the 50-goal barrier with 52 goals, or 19.2 per cent of Cape Breton’s 270 goals. If fellow overager Massimo Carozza and Fiore continue to produce and the team plays like the one that beat the Charlottetown Islanders six times in the regular season, Cape Breton could continue to surprise.

An upset, you say?

Even though long-time head coach Benoît Groulx isn’t behind the bench this year, the Olympiques are once again a team to worry about in the playoffs. The team made ground in the standings in February after winning seven in a row. Four of those wins came in overtime, but three were the result of blown leads.

The team also boasts the league’s top scorer in Vitalii Abramov. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect finished the year with 46 goals and 104 points. He was clutch for the Olympiques as a rookie in the playoffs last year, scoring seven goals and two game-winners.

And the winner is…

Gatineau Olympiques in seven.

 

Chicoutimi Saguenéens (8) vs. Victoriaville Tigres (9)

Only three points separated the East Division rivals in the standings this season. Both teams won six of their final 10 games. The Chicoutimi Saguenéens had a goal differential of +1 while the Victoriaville Tigres had a differential of -1. In six head-to-head matchups, Chicoutimi held the edge with four wins including two in the shootout. The Sags were once again led by Nicolas Roy who had 36 goals in 53 games.

Chicoutimi got its biggest boost of the season in late January when Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder German Rubtsov came to North America from the KHL. The Russian centre had 22 points in 19 games, but missed the final six games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. His availability for the playoffs could be a deciding factor in this series.

An upset, you say?

The two teams finished so close, a Victoriaville Tigres win wouldn’t be considered a big upset. One player that needs to bounce back from a poor regular season is Philadelphia Flyers prospect Pascal Laberge. After posting 68 points in his draft year, the winger only had 32 points in 10 fewer games. A concussion in October kept him out of action for over a month, but he underperformed the rest of the way. Maxime Comtois is another key player who saw his production dip. The sophomore is ranked 15th among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term rankings. He saw his points dip from 60 to 51 in his draft year. If these two players can find an extra gear in the playoffs, the Tigres could be tough to handle.

And the winner is…

Chicoutimi in seven.

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