It's been a few days since the last blog; hey, we all needed a bit of time off after that gruelling three-in-three, no? :)
The first topic at hand is obviously the visit by the Saint John Sea Dogs for two games, tonight (Thursday) and Friday night. Hopefully our Eagles are rested up after returning on Monday morning from Lewiston, and getting in a couple of good practices.
The Sea Dogs come into this pair of games with the worst record in the QMJHL, at 15-37-1-2 for 33 points. They are also just 1-8-0-1 in their last ten games. To many observers across the league, including many that will make their way to C200 tonight and tomorrow night, these two games should be easy pickings for the Eagles. However, one would think that both the Eagles and their main core of fans have not yet forgotten a lesson taught to the team by the Rimouski Oceanic just a couple of weekends ago. That lesson, of course, was that if one team shows up wanting the two points more than the other, and goes out and outworks the other, it may very well not matter how far behind in the standings, or how short they are on talent.
The absolute key to these two games is that the Eagles do whatever they can to make sure they don't take the Sea Dogs for granted, that these are actually pretty dangerous games, as a loss tonight or tomorrow night could really deflate this team. The guys have to remember how hard they worked to earn those road victories last weekend, and have to dedicate themselves to applying the same effort against Saint John. These guys are coming into our rink with pretty much nothing to lose, and that in itself makes them a dangerous hockey club.
As well, Sea Dog goaltender Travis Fullerton has stymied the Eagles on a couple of occasions in his QMJHL (last year as a member of the Lewiston MAINEiacs), and sometimes all it takes to really change the outcome of a game is a red hot goaltender. Forward Chris DiDomenico and defenceman Alex Grant have been pretty hot lately for Saint John, and you know that former Eagle Francois Gauthier is going to come into these two games with something to prove. Gauthier has really turned his season around since joining the Sea Dogs; in 18 games with the second-year club, he has 10 goals and 7 assists for 17 points.
On the whole, this entire upcoming stretch of games could be dangerous for the Eagles if they aren't properly prepared for them. Starting with tonight's contest, the team has five straight games against the "expansion teams". After the two straight tonight and tomorrow night with the Sea Dogs, the Eagles host the St. John's Fog Devils on Sunday afternoon, and then travel to the Rock for two more against the Fog Devils next Thursday and Friday. While these games are a good opportunity for Cape Breton to pick up some very important points in the standings, they are also games where upset losses could be very hard on the team's psyche. As well, Eagle clubs have over the years had a nasty trend of playing down to a weaker opponent's level, and five straight games against teams that have been among the weaker five teams in the league most of this season could be a way for the Eagles to develop some bad habits, not exactly what you want with the playoffs right around the corner.
So for those who think this next stretch of games is a great opportunity for the Eagles to cruise to an easy 8-10 points, keep in mind that this is actually a potentially dangerous part of the schedule for Cape Breton, and let's just hope that the Eagles find the best way to handle it.
Game time tonight against the Sea Dogs is the usual 7:00 PM. You would think that they may split the two goaltenders between the two Sea Dog games, and your guess is as good as mine as to which will get the call tonight. As far as the Cape Breton lineup is concerned, it should be similar to the one that finished out the road trip in Lewiston, as long as Cam Fergus didn't reaggravate his injury in that game against the MAINEiacs. The only other guy who played last weekend who may be a bit of a question mark is Spencer Corcoran; he took a high stick to the face in one of the games and went for X-rays to determine any damage. As for Scott Brannon, he has been skating with the team this week, and if all goes well, he should return for the two games in Newfoundland next week.
I'd also like to take an opportunity to have a quick look around the league at the races for playoff positioning that are taking place. There are a number of battles to keep an eye on as we head down the stretch drive.
- First and foremost to us, of course, is the battle for first place in the East Division (and in the league) between the Lewiston MAINEiacs and our Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. As I'm sure you guys know, Lewiston currently leads this race 80 points to 78, and holds a game in hand, but the Eagles have been gaining momentum for last while...... while Lewiston has been sagging. This one should be down to the wire.
Also factoring into this race are the Moncton Wildcats, who sit five points back of the Eagles with 73 points, although they too have been sliding as of late. And if we're making it a race for first overall, you have to include the Val d'or Foreurs (75 points) and Gatineau Olympiques (72 points) from the West.
- Next down the rung in our division is a very interesting battle for third place in the division between Moncton (73 points) and the PEI Rocket (69 points). Moncton has been pretty far ahead of PEI for most of the season, but the Rocket are currently the hottest team in the QMJHL (8-1-1 in last ten games), while as said, Moncton has been sliding a little bit. PEI also holds a game in hand. Don't be surprised if the Rocket pass the Wildcats before too long.
- The following group in our division consists of 5th place Bathurst (62 points), 6th place Halifax (56), and 7th place St. John's (54 points). Bathurst was ahead of PEI for most of this season but seems to have fallen far behind in the battle for home ice advantage in the first round. I personally don't see them rebounding and challenging the Rocket in the standings, and Moncton may be too far ahead for them to catch as well. I also find it pretty interesting how close St. John's has crept up on Halifax.
- The 9th place team from the West Division crosses over into our division as the eighth playoff team. They are then seeded within our division based on their overall point total. For example, if they were 9th in the West but still managed to have more points than the 7th place team in the East, they would be the #7 East seed for the playoffs, and the 7th place team in the East would be seed #8.
Having explained that, you can factor the Shawinigan Cataractes (48 points) into the above race with Halifax and St. John's, although when you're a club that's in a freefall like Shawinigan is, six points may be too much to make up.
You can also add the Rimouski Oceanic to this race, as they still have a chance at catching the Cataractes to be the last playoff team from the West. They have 39 points, nine back of Shawinigan, but also hold two games in hand. Recently, Rimouski really made it look like Shawinigan had something to be worried about, as they went on a six-game winning streak. However, they have lost their last three since, and their chances of making the playoffs are still pretty remote.
This battle for 6-7-8 in the East is one to watch for Eagles fans, as we will most likely end up playing one of these teams in the first round of the playoffs.
- In the West, we have a crazy logjam near the top. It would take far too long to go into all possibilities, so I will cut things short by simply giving my personal views of what the races are.
I consider Val d'or (75 points) and Gatineau (70) to be slugging it out for top spot.
I then see a four-team battle for seeds 3-6 between Quebec (69), Victoriaville (68), Baie-Comeau (66), and Rouyn-Noranda (63). Your guess is as good as mine as to how these six top teams from the West are going to finish.
There is then an intriguing battle for the 7th seed between Chicoutimi (59) and Drummondville (57). Drummondville has two games in hand on the Sags, has been hot lately, and is scheduled to return superstar forward Derick Brassard to the lineup very soon, possibly as soon as Friday night. Of course, if Rouyn-Noranda keeps sliding like they have been since acquiring Mathieu Carle at the trading period, they could very well be caught by Chicoutimi and/or Drummondville.
With so many races going on pretty much all over the league, involving pretty much every team in the league but the Saint John Sea Dogs, the playoff picture still remains pretty cloudy with a month remaining in the regular season.