It came down to the wire for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Chicoutimi Saguenéens as both teams moved through to the QMJHL semifinals with Game 7 wins. Now they square off against well-rested teams that have combined for zero losses through the first two rounds — the first-place Saint John Sea Dogs and top-scoring Charlottetown Islanders.
After knocking off the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, the defending President Cup champions, the eighth-place Saguenéens are the underdogs in a final four featuring three teams built for President Cup runs.
(1) Saint John Sea Dogs vs. (8) Chicoutimi Saguenéens
The Saint John Sea Dogs had no problem disposing a Val-d’Or Foreurs team that upset the third-place Shawinigan Cataractes in the first round. The Sea Dogs staged a siege of the Foreurs, relentlessly hammering the net with shots. In four games, Saint John outshot its opponents 226-70 with an average of 56.5 shots per game.
Now the Saint John Sea Dogs return to the semis for the second year in a row, looking to erase the memory of a five-game loss at the hands of Shawinigan a year ago.
The sheer power of the forward group makes the Sea Dogs a hard team to contain. After a quiet first round with one point, Julien Gauthier broke through with three goals — including two game winners — and two assists in the sweep of his former team. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound winger shot the puck a lot more in the second round with 28 shots compared to seven in the first round. In Game 2 alone, Gauthier had 13 of Saint John’s 54 shots.
Sophomore Joe Veleno, the first QMJHL player granted exceptional player status, didn’t have a particularly noteworthy regular season after an injury-shortened campaign. The centre had three goals against Val’d’Or to bring his playoff total to five. In 17 playoff games in his rookie season, Veleno had six goals. He’s plus-5 after finishing a team-worst minus-10 last year. With so many talented players on the Saint John roster, Veleno may not stand out above the rest quite yet, but a breakthrough could be on the way in his 2018 NHL draft-eligible season.
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Callum Booth has started eight playoff games, but has only faced more than 20 shots once. Now, he faces a Saguenéens team that actually scored fewer goals in the regular season than both Val-d’Or and Drummondville, the team’s first-round opponent. He’s been to the Memorial Cup as a backup behind Zach Fucale as a member of the Québec Remparts, but this is his first time being the clear starter in the playoffs. The team’s been able to get it done in front of him all playoffs, but he’s a solid last line of defence.
An upset, you say?
With a chance to put away the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in Game 6 of the second round, the Sags were demolished 9-2 on home ice. In Game 7, it looked like Chicoutimi’s season was coming to an end after falling behind 3-1 in the third period. Defenceman Olivier Galipeau tied the game in the final two minutes and scored in overtime as the eighth-place Sags eliminated the defending President Cup champions. The pair of goals capped off an outstanding round for the 19-year-old Galipeau, who was named the first star in Game 2, Game 7 and finished the series with three goals and five assists.
Now the team has to quickly regroup and take on the well-rested Sea Dogs. They’ll need the good version of overage goalie Julio Billia to show up consistently to pull off an upset. He had a GAA of 1.50 from Game 2 to Game 4, but overall his numbers from the series were tainted by a GAA of 6.00 in Game 1 and 9.37 in Game 6.
Vancouver Canucks prospect Dmitry Zhukenov leads the team in playoff scoring with 16 points. The Russian centre provides scoring depth behind Nicolas Roy and he’s stepped up to replace some of the scoring lost with fellow Russian and Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick German Rubtsov out of the playoffs with an injury.
For the Sags to have a chance to get back to the final for the first time since the 1996-97 season, the team will need to find a way to shut down wave after wave of talented Sea Dogs players. While the Huskies were an experienced and skilled group, the team didn’t have the same fire power as a healthy Saint John squad.
The winner is…
Saint John in six.
(4) Charlottetown Islanders vs. (5) Blainville-Boisbriand Armada
For the first time in franchise history, the Charlottetown Islanders are in a QMJHL semifinal. This includes the Montreal and PEI Rocket years from 1999 to 2013 before the team re-branded to the current Islanders. Making it this far is a nice milestone, but it’s not good enough for a team that was built for a Memorial Cup run.
The Islanders haven’t lost in the playoffs. After dominating Baie-Comeau in the first round, it took overtime and a couple close games to complete the sweep over the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in Round 2.
Sure, it’s a cliche, but Charlottetown’s best players are playing like its best players. Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Daniel Sprong, who this time last year was playing in the American Hockey League playoffs, had at least a goal in all four games against Cape Breton to bring his playoff total to seven goals and seven assists.
Naturally, linemate Filip Chlapik is also putting up big points as he continues his bounce-back season. He had two goals and eight assists against Cape Breton. After two disappointing and injury-riddled playoffs, Chlapik is showing why the Ottawa Senators gave its former first-round pick an entry-level contract in December.
At first, goaltender Mark Grametbauer looked like a small part thrown into the blockbuster deal that brought in defenceman Nicolas Meloche from the Gatineau Olympiques. He’s emerged as the team’s best goalie and has started all eight playoff games, posting a .931 save percentage and 1.86 GAA. Grametbauer faced 35-plus shots in three of his four wins against Cape Breton. In the semifinal, he’ll face an Armada team that originally drafted him 41st overall in 2014.
An upset, you say?
It’s foolish to underestimate the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. Last season, the team pulled of the biggest upset in QMJHL history with a first-round defeat of the Val-d’Or Foreurs. This time around, the team faced elimination against the Acadie-Bathurst Titan three times, but erased a 3-1 deficit and won the series with a decisive 7-1 Game 7 win.
The team’s success hinges on goaltender Samuel Montembeault. The Florida Panthers prospect leads the QMJHL playoffs with a .939 save percentage and 1.46 GAA. He missed a pair of games against Bathurst and the Armada lost both of them. Once he returned, the team ripped off three wins in a row and Montembeault only allowed one goal in each of them. Acadie-Bathurst finished third in regular season goals with 284, but had trouble solving Montembeault. Now the 20-year-old has an even more difficult task facing the only team to score more than 300 goals. As long as Montembeault can stay healthy, the Armada has a chance.
Over the trading period, the Armada moved out high draft picks and players to bring in winger Pierre-Luc Dubois from Cape Breton and Alex Barré-Boulet from Drummondville. The cost was high, but so far the return has been worth it. Barré-Boulet leads the playoffs with 10 goals and 21 points, including a hat trick in Game 7. Dubois is right behind him with 14 points.
Winger Joël Teasdale dipped from 77 to 84 in NHL Central Scouting’s final draft rankings earlier in April. His draft stock may be creeping back up ahead of the June Draft after 11 points in 11 games, highlighted by a four-point night in the decisive Game 7 win.
The winner is…
Charlottetown in six