A win in the opening game of the 2015 QMJHL playoffs would go a long way toward solving the Moncton Wildcats’ three-year problem with the first round of the post-season.
After being bounced in the opening series the past three seasons, the Wildcats (46-19-0-3) have a chance to break that streak starting Thursday when they open a best-of-seven set versus the Chicoutimi Sagueneens at the Moncton Coliseum, officially kicking off 16 teams’ quest for the President’s Cup.
"Everyone that’s here is basically new blood," said general manager and hockey operations director Roger Shannon, whose Wildcats finished atop the Maritimes Division for the first time since 2008-09. "We’re not thinking about that history."
The Cats enter the playoffs winners of seven of their past 10 games, riding a red-hot offence that put up a league-best 287 goals.
Runaway league scoring champion Conor Garland fuelled that production with a 129-point campaign, tying Erie’s Dylan Strome for the CHL scoring title while setting a franchise record for most points in a season. His mainstay linemate, St. Louis Blues prospect Ivan Barbashev, scored 45 goals.
Tasked with shutting down that duo will be Chicoutimi goaltender Julio Billia, who was twice named league goalie of the month. He was 4-2 with a 2.07 goals against average and a .930 save percentage in March.
The Sagueneens (29-32-4-3) had a mediocre 2014-15, but benefited from a mid-season personnel shake-up.
After losing 17 of their first 26 games, Chicoutimi improved when Yanick Jean took over GM and coaching duties in late November, guiding the team to a 20-17-2-3 record in its final 42 contests.
"They are a formidable opponent," Shannon said. "Really, the (narrow) gap between all teams is unprecedented, from one to 16."
Chicoutimi’s offence will rely heavily on Arizona Coyotes prospect and veteran forward Laurent Dauphin and potential 2015 first-rounder Nicolas Roy, who after a slow start finished a solid sophomore season with 50 points.
Rimouski Oceanic vs. Victoriaville Tigres
The Jean Rougeau Trophy-winning Oceanic (47-16-3-2) enter the post-season as the league’s hottest team, having won four straight and eight of their previous 10 matches. The Tigres, (27-34-3-4) conversely, won only two of their final 10 and have dropped seven in a row.
Blainville-Boisbriand Armada vs. Gatineau Olympiques
Armada (41-18-2-7) linemates Danick Martel and Nikita Jevpalovs both hit the century mark in point totals this season, and both were rewarded with an NHL contract. Even if the Olympiques (31-31-0-6) can shut down the lethal duo, they’ll still need to break through a Blainville-Boisbriand defence that allowed the fewest goals (185) this season.
Quebec Remparts vs. Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
As host of the Memorial Cup, the Remparts (40-25-1-2) have already punched their ticket to the national championships. Hometown hero Kyle Farrell will look to lead the Screaming Eagles (31-31-3-3) to the second round for the first time since 2009.
Shawinigan Cataractes vs. Halifax Mooseheads
Mooseheads superstar Nikolaj Ehlers is a playoff performer. He notched 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 16 games before Halifax (32-30-4-2) bowed out in the semifinal last year. But can he and Swiss sensation Timo Meier solve Cataractes (39-26-1-2) netminder Marvin Cupper, who was outstanding in the crease all season?
Val-d’Or Foreurs vs. Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
The Foreurs (35-25-3-5) and Huskies (33-30-4-1) are well acquainted, having played one another 10 times in 2014-15, with Val-d’Or taking six of those matches. Only seven points separated the West Division rivals.
Baie-Comeau Drakkar vs. Saint John Sea Dogs
The Sea Dogs (32-26-4-6) experienced a late-season slide, dropping five of their final six. The Drakkar (35-25-5-3) also struggled late, losing six of their last eight. The two sides split the two-game season series.
Sherbrooke Phoenix vs. Charlottetown Islanders
Only three points separate the Phoenix (36-26-2-4) and the Islanders (35-28-1-4) and both sides boast near identical numbers in goals for and against. Charlottetown owns one of the Q’s top power-play units, and features potential 2015 first-rounder Daniel Sprong.