Make it a perfect road trip.
After winning the first two games in Shawinigan and Victoriaville, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles made it three-for-three yesterday by beating the Lewiston MAINEiacs 4-1 in their own barn in what may have been the most important game of the season to date.
With the win, the Eagles now sit just TWO points back of Lewiston for first place overall......... the closest we have been to these guys since pretty much the start of the season. A loss in yesterday's game would have meant the gap between the two teams widening to six points. Not only was the win important from a standpoint of gaining two points on the MAINEiacs, but it was also a chance to make a big statement to Lewiston by beating them in three straight games down the stretch, and the Eagles took advantage - big time.
This three-for-three road trip is also a huge confidence-builder for the Eagles in terms of their play on the road. Going into this trip, the team's road record was slightly below .500, and was considered to be one of the few weaknesses on a generally strong team. As well, the Eagles' last road trip was one to forget; I'm sure most of you recall the trip the team made right after the trading period, which saw them win just one out of four games. The Eagles weren't about to have two awful road trips in a row, and made a big statement to themselves on this trip that they can indeed find a way to win under tough circumstances on the road, something that was legitimately in doubt throughout much of the season. Now, the team should have a lot more confidence about their play away from C200 heading down the rest of the stretch, and into the playoffs. You cannot have playoff success without solid play on the road!
In yesterday's game, the first two periods were tight-checking, defensive affairs. Beau Prokopetz came up huge with his first goal as an Eagle late in the first period to stake the Eagles to a 1-0 lead after one. In period two, Dean Ouellet scored on the powerplay to make it 2-0. Cape Breton went up 3-0 when James Sheppard came out of the box just in time to take advantage of a miscommunication between Lewiston goalie Peter Delmas and MAINEiac dman Sebastien Piche. He stole the puck and slid it across to JC Gauthier for a backbreaking goal.
In the third period, however, Lewiston came out flying, and Cape Breton suddenly found themselves on their heels and starting to run out of gas. It was soon apparent that the three games in less than 48 hours were finally starting to get to the Eagles, and they were basically hanging on for dear life to their lead. They were hanging on even harder after Lewiston's Kevin Marshall pinched in and tipped home a Michal Korenko pass to cut the lead to 3-1.
That's when Ondrej Pavelec came up with his finest work of the road trip. From then on, he took over for his tired teammates and shut the door on numerous Lewiston scoring opportunities as the MAINEiacs outshot Cape Breton 18-7 in the final period in a desperate attempt to get back into the game. None of his stops was huger than his penalty shot stop on Dave Taylor at 4:08 of the final frame. A goal there would have made it 3-2, and given Lewiston all the momentum with plenty of time left to tie the game. That penalty shot stop has to rank up there as one of Pavelec's most important saves of the season.
The Eagles managed to hold the fort, with Paul McIlveen icing things with an empty net goal from his own blueline; a bit of a dangerous play that thankfully didn't backfire on us with an icing call against. With the win, Cape Breton improves to 38-17-2 for 78 points, five points ahead of third-place Moncton, and of course two behind first-place Lewiston.
The Screaming Eagles have a much more favourable schedule the rest of the way than does Lewiston, so they are now in the driver's seat in the race for first place. However, a couple of blown games against weaker opponents (like the one against Rimouski) would put the MAINEiacs right back in the driver's seat where they have been all season. Cape Breton has to keep that in mind the rest of the way, and has to make sure to come out as sharp this weekend against the Sea Dogs and Fog Devils as they did on this past road trip! But first, the team will enjoy a well-deserved day or two of rest.
Three-for-three road trip............ I don't think even the most optimistic of Eagle fans expected that. Hats off to the team on a fine accomplishment.
One statistic that really illustrates how well this team has played throughout this season is this:
The top three +/- ratings in the entire league all belong to members of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Chris Culligan leads the league with a +38 rating.
JC Sawyer is second at +36.
James Sheppard is third at +31, and could be first if not for the fact that he's played 10 and 12 less games than Sawyer and Culligan, respectively.
Culligan and Sheppard are also a lethal penalty-killing duo, and while there are no stats to support it, I really don't know if there is a penalty-killing forward duo in the league that is scored on as seldom as those two guys are.
To FURTHER illustrate what a great week it was for the Eagles, this just in from the QMJHL's official website:
James Sheppard has been named Offensive Player of the Week thanks to his 3G 8A 11PT output in four games this past week. Robert Slaney was also considered for the award thanks to his explosion for 4G 5A 9PTS over the week.
Ondrej Pavelec has been named Defensive Player of the Week. In three games, he earned three wins, and had a 2.00 GAA and .924 save %. He was third star in Victoriaville and first star in Lewiston. JC Sawyer was also considered for the award, thanks to a 1G 4A 5PT week where he also finished with a +5.
Eagles sweep the Offensive and Defensive POW honours, and two other Eagles are considered for the award - further evidence of what a week the Eagles enjoyed!
Amongst all of these positive things, there is always room for improvement.
What jumps out at me right away is the fact that despite the three road wins, the powerplay went a combined 1-for-19 on the road trip.
The powerplay has been struggling for a while now, and has to improve come playoff time. Some fans still grimace thinking about the Eagles' powerplay in the playoffs last year......... which at one point in the postseason was an absolutely ghastly 3-for-50.
Whether it's just a matter of time before the current powerplay combinations start clicking, or whether a bit of a switch-up in the powerplay lineups is necessary, I don't know, and hopefully the coaching staff can figure it out.