Much like their counterparts out west and in Ontario, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs are down to the final four and the matchups have the potential to be two good ones.
What makes Round 3 even more appealing is the four remaining teams were among the league’s top five teams in the regular season and three of the four finished with more than 100 points.
As the league reseeds teams heading into what is the conference final, the top-ranked Rouyn-Noranda Huskies open up the semifinals Friday at home against the Rimouski Oceanic.
For the Huskies, it has been an amazing season thus far.
After going 59-8-0-1 in regular-season play, the team has won eight of 10 outings in the playoffs. The Huskies needed six games to beat the Shawinigan Cataractes in the opening round before sweeping the Victoriaville Tigres in round two.
"The thing is, when you look closely at our lineup, 20 players of the 23 were drafted by our organization," said Huskies coach Mario Pouliot. "It’s one of our best assets. All of the players grew together. Our team chemistry is amazing. Those kids grew up together. They know our team DNA and what it means to be a Husky.
"We have depth everywhere," Pouliot added. "We’re playing a tight defensive game. We have two really good goaltenders with Sam Harvey and Zach Emond and we’re playing fast offensively, and we have really good special teams."
With 320 goals in the regular season, it’s easy to overlook how good the Huskies were defensively this season and Harvey, in his overage season, and 18-year-old Emond (San Jose Sharks) have also been a key to their success.
"The fact that they’re really close friends [helps]," Pouliot said. "They’re working really hard with Danny Sabourin, our goalie coach. He’s doing an amazing job with those two.
"Their work ethic is really good," Pouliot added.
As offensively gifted as the Huskies are, the team has also prided itself on making the lives of their goalies easier by also being solid in their own zone.
"We’re proud of our defensive game," Pouliot said. "And our goalies have helped when we have a tough time defensively and they’re doing a really good job on a regular basis."
After a successful regular season that saw them win 44 games and finish second in the QMJHL’s East Division, Oceanic general manager and coach Serge Beausoleil spoke of his team’s ability to play a mix of styles.
"We’re pretty balanced," Beausoleil said. "We can play the hard game, but in the meantime, we’re a puck-moving team."
With the likes of potential 2020 first-overall NHL draft pick Alexis Lafrenière and overage forward Jimmy Huntington, Rimouski’s ability to score is something that can give other teams trouble.
Lafrenière is coming off a regular season that saw him score 37 goals and 105 points in 61 games, and the young forward has added seven goals and 18 points in nine playoff games to date.
"He’s always two plays ahead," Beausoleil said. "He can see the play so well. Defensively, he’s improved his game.
"He knows how to play, he’s willing to compete," Beausoleil added. "It will be a great series to see how he’s going to manage it."
Both coaches expect a tough series between two of the top teams in the league.
"For sure it’s going to be our hardest challenge since the start of the playoffs," Pouliot said. "I don’t want to discredit Shawinigan or Victoriaville, but at the start of the season Rimouski was a top team and they’re well coached. They have a lot of talent everywhere. They have a really good goaltending duo. They have big defencemen and they have depth there. They have depth up front."
"It’s going to be a really interesting series," Pouliot added.
For the Oceanic, facing the Huskies won’t be an easy challenge either.
"They’re balanced," Beausoleil said of the Huskies. "They’ve got speed, they’ve got skill.
"To play on the little rink [in Rouyn-Noranda], that’s going to be a challenge for us," Beausoleil added.
The QMJHL’s other semifinal series will see the Drummondville Voltigeurs face the Memorial Cup host Halifax Mooseheads beginning Friday.
A trade with the Quebec Remparts to bring in goaltender Anthony Morrone initially gave the Voltigeurs depth at the position, but the 20-year-old has taken the reigns as the starter after a late-season injury to Olivier Rodrigue (Edmonton Oilers).
Morrone has gone 8-2 in the playoffs for Drummondville after posting solid numbers late in the regular season.
Voltigeurs coach Hartley credited Morrone’s play, adding he feels Morrone’s numbers don’t necessarily reflect just how good he’s been for the club.
"He’s given us a chance to win every night," Hartley said.
Hartley said Rodrigue remains out day-to-day.
On the blue line, some playoff experience in the form of Pierre-Olivier Joseph (Arizona), who was in Charlottetown last season and was a part of the Islanders back-to-back conference final appearances, and Michal Ivan, who won a Memorial Cup title with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan a year ago, play a key role for the Voltigeurs.
Add in the playoff experience of Joe Veleno (Detroit) with Saint John prior to being acquired by Drummondville.
"The experience that they acquired, they’ve seen what it takes to win," Hartley said. "That’s the big part for us and not leaving anything to chance.
"There are four good teams left in all three (CHL) leagues, it’s important to take care of things we can control," Hartley added. "It’s important not to lose energy on things we don’t control and just take care of our games and our details."
For the Mooseheads, the season has been one in which the team has made itself better by making improvements on the defensive side of the puck.
"It’s a team that had a decent amount of offensive talent and it was a matter of us learning to defend," said Halifax coach Eric Veilleux, who took the job last spring with the team.
Veilleux credited the players that were in place and their willingness to make the adjustment to round out their game, especially the group of defencemen.
"They’re all good skaters, they can move the puck well," Veilleux said. "Their ability to get shots through is good. The main thing is their skating ability. We worked a lot on defending this year and so far, it’s been pretty good, and I’m pleased with the progression we’ve had all year."
Goaltender Alexis Gravel (Chicago Blackhawks) has also taken a step forward in his game this year.
"There was a change in maturity, he matured a lot this year," Veilleux said. "I had a good meeting with him in July before the season started and I told him about the expectations I had as far as his attitude and his work ethic. He’s been great all year for that. He’s doing what pros do. He trains like a pro. He acts like one and it’s beneficial for him and the team."
The series has the makings of an entertaining one for fans of the two similar teams.
"On paper, it’s a pretty good matchup offensively," Veilleux said. "They have guys that can turn the game around on their own [Maxime Comtois and Veleno].
"They have three, if not four, lines that can score goals," Veilleux added. "We’ll have to use what we’ve improved on this year, which is defending well. On the rush, they’re deadly."
"We’re two very similar teams," Hartley said. "I expect a tight series that is going to be decided on one or two details every night. They’re a deep team up front like we are. They’re good on the back end. They have NHL picks on the back end and they’re solid in net with [Alexis] Gravel. I expect a real good series. It’s going to be good for the fans in both buildings to see good hockey."
Forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx remains out for the Mooseheads and Veilleux said his status for the series is uncertain.
Groulx has yet to play in the playoffs after being diagnosed with mono in mid-March.