Tonight's game opens a two-game weekend doubleheader between the fifth-place PEI Rocket and the third-place Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. We have seen quite a few such doubleheaders this season, as the QMJHL seems to be favouring a schedule that cuts down on travel costs. The Eagles and the Rocket met in a doubleheader back in October in Charlottetown, and it ended up in a split; PEI won the first game 5-4, Cape Breton took the second contest 3-0. Pascal Vincent and his troops will be looking for a better result this time around at C200. Cape Breton leads the season series between the two teams by a count of two games to one; in addition to the two games just mentioned, the Eagles scored a 5-2 victory over the Rocket on October 30 at C200. Cape Breton trails the Moncton Wildcats by two points for second place in the East Division, although they hold two games in hand. They also trail the Lewiston MAINEiacs by eight points for first place in the division; Lewiston finally had their 13-game win streak snapped in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Wildcats on Wednesday night.
The Eagles enter tonight's matchup having won their last three hockey games. They will be without defenceman Oskars Bartulis and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, as those two have already left to join their respective World Junior teams. Called up to help fill these voids are goaltender Kyle Downer from St. John's Midget AAA, and defencemen Spencer Corcoran (Charlottetown Jr A) and Maxime Gervais (College Antoine-Girouard Midget AAA). The Eagles will also still be missing defencemen Etienne Breton (shoulder), Charlie Pens (concussion), and Daniel Fazzalari (knee), although the latter two are said to be returning soon. David Davenport will no doubt get the start in goal tonight for Cape Breton, while most of the line combinations should be fairly similar to what they were last game. The Eagles are still counting offensively on the lines of Dean Ouellet-Cam Fergus-Paul McIlveen and Chris Culligan-James Sheppard-Scott Brannon; both lines have been playing very well since they were put together two weeks ago prior to a game against the Halifax Mooseheads.
It will be interesting to see how McIlveen performs after being named QMJHL Offensive Player of the Week last week (five goals and an assist in two games), and it could be even more interesting to see how Sheppard responds to his disappointing omission from the Canadian World Junior selection camp roster. A lot of guys seem to feel the "Player of the Week" pressure and tail off in the game or two immediately following their selection, so we'll see if McIlveen can avoid that trend, and as for Sheppard, his attitude has been that his being left off of the Canadian roster will only serve as further motivation to play his best and prove them wrong.
From the PEI side of the ice, starting in goal for head coach Yannick Jean and his gang could be 18-year-old Antoine Lafleur. He has started the last four hockey games for the Rocket (playing extremely well), and there are plenty of rumours swirling around that long-time #1 goaltender Ryan Mior is on his way out of town. Helping to back up these rumours is the fact that the Rocket have recently called up goaltender Evan Mosher from the midget ranks.
On defence, the Rocket are led by the big three of Marc-Andre Gragnani, Pierre-Marc Guilbault, and Pierre-Luc Lessard. These guys are all very mobile, slick-skating, puck-moving two-way defencemen. All excel on the point on the powerplay, and all are key parts of PEI's transition game. The Screaming Eagles will have to keep a close eye on these three guys. Also playing well on defence for the Rocket is 16-year-old rookie Jordan Southorn, who they took in the first round, 17th overall, in this past June's draft. PEI also boasts a couple of other former first round QMJHL picks on the blueline in Stephen Lund and Pascal Boutin, although both have been disappointments thus far in their Q careers.
Up front, the Rocket have a pretty balanced attack, although they don't really have any "superstar" calibre scorers. Their most dangerous man offensively is overager David Laliberte, who leads the Rocket in scoring with 46 points in 31 games. Sniper Geoff Walker (40 points in 31 games) has a great shot and is dangerous from almost anywhere inside the bluline. The diminutive Guillaume Doucet has 29 pts in 31 games and often plays on a line with Laliberte; the two complement each other pretty well. Other decent forwards for the Rocket include Sydney native Joey Haddad (17 pts in 30 games), Europeans Martin Latal and Peter Cmorej, crasher and banger Tyler Hawes, and sophomores Chad Locke and Matthew Lachaine. The latter two, however, have had disappointing offensive production thus far this season. Latal is questionable for tonight's game after having left the Rocket's previous game with an undetermined injury.
For fight fans, don't get too excited about tonight; PEI has virtually no fighters to speak of (unless you consider Devan Praught to be a fighter), and the Eagles haven't seen a fight occur in a home game in about a month.
Cape Breton powerplay = 3rd iu the league at 24.9%
Cape Breton penalty kill = 4th in the league at 81.8%
PEI powerplay = Tied for 6th in the league at 21.6%
PEI penalty kill = 3rd in the league at 82.7%
PEI is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team; some nights they look as good as the league's contenders, other nights they seem to implode and beat themselves. Who knows which version will show up at C200 this weekend? Maybe we'll see both. Most weekend doubleheaders the Eagles have been involved in so far this season have ended up being splits, but it would be nice if Cape Breton can set the bar a little higher this weekend and go for three or even four points from the Rocket.
A couple of other little matters of interest:
- The Eagles have played 32 games so far and have yet to participate in a shootout. They have also only been to overtime once (5-4 OT loss in Bathurst in late October).
- If there is one disturbing stat about this year's Eagles, it is that they are 1-6 this season in games decided by one goal. This is a trend that has got to turn around; truly good teams find a way to win the close ones.
Not much else to say about tonight's game; Go Eagles!