Cape Breton Screaming Eagles fans will enjoy a rare opportunity to see two West Division opponents for the only time each this weekend, as the Rimouski Oceanic and Drummondville Voltigeurs come to town for Friday and Sunday games respectively. Fans only get to see each Quebec-based team once per season as a result of the rather unpopular unbalanced schedule adopted by the QMJHL in conjunction with the NHL's new (and equally unpopular) unbalanced schedule.
On Friday night, the young and exciting Oceanic sail into town riding a season-high four-game winning streak. Their offence seems to have really woken up during this streak, led by the QMJHL Rookie of the Month for January, Czech forward Michael Frolik, who was also picked 10th overall by the Florida Panthers in this past June's NHL draft (just one spot behind the Eagles' James Sheppard). Other flashy young players on this team include Maxime Tanguay (brother of the Calgary Flames' Alex Tanguay), Max Gratchev, and Olivier Fortier - all considered pretty good prospects for this coming NHL draft.
Rimouski may sit in last place in the West Division, but their current four-game win streak indicates that perhaps their young core is adjusting to the league, and that they could be a better team in the second half. For sure, they can't be taken lightly by the Eagles tonight, or they will extend their win streak to five games.
Speaking of streaks, Cape Breton has a chance to set a new team record streak of their own. They enter tonight's game having won each of their past eleven home games, which ties the previous team record set back in the 2003-2004 season. A win tonight would establish a new Eagle record for consecutive home ice wins.
Scott Brannon and Robert Slaney are still questionable for tonight's game with injuries. Ondrej Pavelec will likely get the call in goal, as the Eagles shall almost certainly keep riding the hot hand that has enjoyed so much success as of late (more on that in a bit).
On Sunday, Cape Breton hosts the Drummondville Voltigeurs in a 4:00 matinee from C200. Voltigeur superstar forward Derick Brassard will not be back in the lineup in time for this game. He has missed the entire season thus far with a severe shoulder injury, but has apparently been skating for the past few weeks and could return some time this month.
Drummondville had a bad start but has been moving up the standings over the past couple of months. They are led offensively by Europeans Tomas Svoboda and Tomas Zohorna, as well as overager Jonathan Duchesneau and 19-year-old Etienne Bellavance-Martin. Defencemen Drew Paris and Frederic St-Denis are also players to watch, and they've received very good goaltending this season from Pier-Olivier Pelletier. I don't have much more to say about this team because they are extremely foreign to most Cape Breton fans (myself included).......... all I know is that they have been playing pretty well over the past couple of months (after a terrible start to the season) and should pose a pretty stiff challenge to the Eagles.
Aside from the points available in the standings, this weekend's games are important in that they're part of the stretch drive towards the playoffs......... a key time of year when teams that have tweaked their rosters at the Xmas trading deadline are supposed to start gelling and building towards a finished, playoff-ready product. In our case, newcomers Jo Laberge and Beau Prokopetz seem to have pretty much integrated themselves into our lineup, but the big acqusition, Luc Bourdon, seems to have yet to really find his niche in the Eagles' lineup. Last weekend, he was suffering from an injury; if he is healthy this weekend, it's a real chance for he and the coaching staff to make some real strides in getting this guy fully integrated into our lineup.
This weekend, we fans get a break from the same old East Division rivals, and that's reason enough to come down to C200 and see something different!
I would like to take the time to congratulate Screaming Eagles goaltender Ondrej Pavelec on one heck of a return from the World Junior Championships. His play in six January games since coming back from that tournament was enough to earn him a Defensive Player of the Week award, a CHL Goaltender of the Week award, and most recently, QMJHL Defensive Player of the Month honours.
Ondrej had a bit of an up-and-down first half to the season, and it was expected that once he returned from the World Juniors, he would start to really get the lion's share of the starts in an attempt to really get him in a groove for the playoffs. We knew that he was going to be given the ball by the coaching staff upon his return, and so far, he's been just incredible. Congratulations Ondrej on all of your awards this month, and keep up the great work - we'll need you down this stretch drive and in the playoffs!