Well here we are, finally on the eve of one of the biggest playoff series in team history. It's only the second time in the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles' ten-year existence that they've reached the third round of the playoffs, the first time coming in 2001-2002 when they faced the Bathurst Titan and lost in five games. That loss hurt that year, and fans have been eagerly waiting for a return to round three for some redemption, and they'll finally get their chance to see it this year against the Val d'or Foreurs. The only playoff series the Eagles have been involved in that I can think of as having been more anticipated than this one would have been the 2001-2002 second round series against the Halifax Mooseheads, which received extra hype for obvious rivalry-related reasons.
Not only is this series a glorious opportunity for Cape Breton to move on to the QMJHL final for the first time, but it could also be the source of some of the most exciting and highest-calibre hockey ever seen at C200 since the Screaming Eagles landed in 1997. Both teams involved in this series have lineups dotted with big names and impact players at all positions, both teams can play any style of hockey game you want (freewheeling, defensive, you name it) and most pundits around the league see the Eagles and the Foreurs as being extremely evenly-matched. At the Christmas trade period this season, no two teams made a bigger statement that they were going for it this year than Cape Breton and Val d'or, and here they are on a semifinal collision course. It's extremely exciting stuff.
With all of that said, let's look at how the teams match up:
Both teams have an extremely deep and potent offense. Cape Breton has two full lines who can score with the best of them (Ouellet-Fergus-McIlveen and Culligan-Sheppard-Brannon), and can also get some decent scoring from third line members Slaney and Laberge. They also receive some offense from blueliners Sawyer, Bartulis, and Bourdon.
Val d'or has about seven forwards and two defencemen who score on at least a fairly consistent basis.
Those seven forwards are Brad Marchand, Mathieu Roy, Jerome Samson, Felix Schutz, Martin Thibeault, Marc-Andre Cote, and Julius Sinkovic. The two extremely offensively-gifted defencemen are Kristopher Letang and Sebastien Bisaillon.
So far in these playoffs, Marchand and Letang have been the rock stars. Marchand has 23 points in 9 playoff games, and Letang 19 points in 8. While Val d'or has a ton of threats, it's clear that THESE TWO GUYS are who the Eagles will have to really key in on and try to shut down. If these two guys are shut down, that may be enough to break down this Val d'or machine, because although the Foreurs have a lot of guys who can score, they rely quite a bit on these two. One only has to look at the game summaries of their playoff games to date. There aren't too many goals that Marchand and/or Letang aren't in on.
Roy is their finisher; he had 50 goals last year for Bathurst and 42 for Val d'or this season. However, I don't quite find he can make things happen out of nothing like Marchand and Letang can. Samson is an awesome two-way player who had 44 goals and 99 points to lead the Foreurs in regular season scoring this year. He won a President's Cup with Moncton last year, and has an incredible work ethic and character to go along with his talents. He's a real playoff guy who will be lethal. Schutz seems to be one of those "final piece of the puzzle" type trade deadline pickups........ he's been playing excellent hockey since being rescued from the doldrums of Harbour Station and the Saint John Sea Dogs. Finally, Bisaillon is Letang's partner in crime on the blueline, and teams up with Letang to form probably the deadliest due on the point on the powerplay in the league. He has a rocket of a shot and, while his numbers are a bit down this year, he had 35 goals last year.
How do the two teams' offenses stack up?
While once again both teams have excellent scoring, and while Val d'or may possess the league's best overall hockey player in Letang, I think that Cape Breton has a little bit deeper an offense that Val d'or has. With the Eagles, which line do you shut down? The one consisting of a 40 goal scorer/a 53 goal scorer/a 37 goal scorer, or the one with James Sheppard? Val d'or, while they also have a ton of scoring options, seems to rely a bit more on a couple of select players, namely Marchand and Letang. On the other hand, no CB players have been scoring at the crazy paces that those two have been thus far in the playoffs. If they can continue scoring at such torrid rates, the Eagles may be in trouble. You can expect the Culligan-Sheppard-Brannon line to see a lot of ice against the line with Marchand and Roy.
It's extremely close, but I think I'd give an ever-so-slight edge to Cape Breton on offense.
Cape Breton has a very uniform "top four" that can be tossed over the boards all game long and shut down opponents. It consists of pairings of Sawyer/Bourdon and Bartulis/Prokopetz. In this, the Eagles essentially have two legitimate "top pairings". As #'s 5-6, Swit and Corcoran have been steady and reliable, although whether or not they receive quite as much ice in this series as they did in the last two remains to be seen. #7 (or 6-B) Etienne Breton is ready to return from his broken jaw, but I don't know how easy it would be to work him back into the lineup at this stage of the playoffs.
Val d'or relies a ton on their twin superstar two-way defencemen, Letang and Bisaillon. Letang has cleanly established himself as the best overall defender in the league, and possibly even the best overall player in the Q at any position this season. He's good enough to turn a series around by himself. After that, Vdo's #3-4 are serviceable defensive defencemen Louis-Etienne Leblanc and Samuel Richard. I honestly don't know too much about #'s 5-6-7-8 Jason Legault, Cedric Archambault, Patrice Daneau, and Shawn Morton-Boutin. Legault was the 3rd overall pick in the 2004 midget draft (same draft where James Sheppard went #1 overall), but has far from lived up to expectations at the major junior level.
Overall, while the Foreurs have the best defenceman on either team in Letang, Cape Breton's D corps looks a fair bit deeper than Val d'or's. After the top two, there seems to be a bit of a dropoff on the Foreur blueline to the rest of the pack, while Cape Breton can throw out two real #1 units.
Give Cape Breton the edge on overall defensive depth, but is Letang good enough to make up for that spread?
Ondrej Pavelec of the Eagles vs Jeremy Duchesne of the Foreurs............ that's a goaltending battle if there ever was one, and I see very little to choose between the two goalies. Both are among the top three in the league as far as I'm concerned. A battle between these two over a long series would probably be a stalemate for quite a long time, and it would basically be a situation of who ends up blinking first. Having said all of that, whichever team receives better goaltending in this round is likely to win the series. Pavelec needs to remain on top of his game and outduel the technically sound and playoff-proven Duchesne. Fans may remember Duchesne from his extended stay with the Halifax Mooseheads, where he became a very familiar foe to the Screaming Eagles.
Sadly, Duchesne will not be available to start the series as he has taken a leave of absence from the Foreurs due to the passing of his father, Gaetan Duchesne. Raffael D'Orso will be given the nod between the pipes for Val d'or for the time being, and will start Game 1 tomorrow night. He'll continue to start until if/when Jeremy is ready to return. D'Orso is 17 years old, but isn't just any rookie; he was good enough to make Canada's U-18 team this past summer, and is considered to be a solid NHL draft prospect. While he is raw and doesn't quite have the veteran experience Duchesne has, he'll be no pushover in the Val d'or net. He was first star in a 4-1 Val d'or win in his only start against the Eagles this year.
Whether it's Duchesne or D'Orso in the Val d'or net, Pavelec will have to be on top of his game like he's been since Christmas in order to give our team the goaltending edge it needs in this series.
Both teams have absolutely lethal powerplays. Cape Breton ranks 1st in the postseason at 38.0%, while Val d'or is 4th at 24.6%. The two powerplays are a lot closer than those numbers indicate. Cape Breton has finally seemed to find two really good PP units that can both realistically threaten to score, and powerplay success has been a huge part of their playoffs so far. This HAS to continue vs Val d'or. The Foreurs, if I'm not mistaken, use one powerplay unit a lot more than they use the other, as they really only have two defencemen on the team that can play the point on the PP. Their main PP unit is a fully loaded one; Roy-Marchand-Samson up front with Bisaillon-Letang on the points. Take dumb penalties, and you know that stacked unit makes you pay big time.
On the penalty kill, Cape Breton is 1st in the playoffs at 86.0%, while Val d'or is 3rd at 82.5%. The Eagles' three main forward units on the PK are Culligan-Sheppard, Ouellet-Fergus, and Slaney-Laberge. All have done a tremendous job, as have all six defencemen and goaltender Pavelec.
Cape Breton also leads the playoffs with six shorthanded goals.
OTHER INTANGIBLES/ODDS AND ENDS
- Cape Breton and Val d'or have never before met in a playoff series.
- The full circle that is the Luc Bourdon trade(s). Val d'or traded Bourdon to Moncton last season as part of their building for a run this year. They ended up getting superstars Marchand and Samson from the Wildcats in that deal. Now, Bourdon ends up on an Eagle team that they are facing in the league semifinal in their "go for it" year. Very ironic.
Who will win out? Bourdon, or the guys he was traded for?
What's also weird is:
Why do the Eagles have Bourdon? Because Val d'or let him go.
Why do the Eagles have to contend with Marchand/Samson in this round? Because Val d'or let Bourdon go.
I'm not quite sure I've seen a situation quite like this in the Q!
- Bourdon and Letang played together on two consecutive Canadian WJC gold medal winning teams, and actually paired up on defense at the latest championship. Marchand was also on this year's Canadian team.
- Sheppard and Marchand were linemates in midget for the Dartmouth Subways.
- Roy was a big part of the Bathurst Titan team that knocked the Eagles out of the playoffs last season.
- Justin Saulnier of the Foreurs was always a big rival of the Eagles when he played 3.5 seasons for the Halifax Mooseheads. He particularly seems to have a rivalry with Sheppard.
- Both coaches, Pascal Vincent of the Eagles and Eric Lavigne of the Foreurs, are looking for their first trip to the Q final.
- The two teams haven't met since October.
All in all, this one is about as closely matched up as they come, and could go either way depending on "the bounces". Unlike their first two series, where they were favoured against Bathurst and heavily favoured against St. John's, there is no real favourite going into this best-of-seven. Cape Breton goes into this series knowing that if they don't come up with one of their best stretches of hockey of the season, they will lose.
That said, this blogger is confident that the Eagles are a bit deeper offensively and especially defensively, and that they are on a mission and have what it takes to beat this extremely difficult opponent. Keys to success for Cape Breton will be to do whatever it can to shut down Marchand and slow down Letang, to receive the same excellent goaltending from Pavelec it has since Xmas, and for the powerplay to continue to play the excellent hockey it has thus far in the playoffs.
There's no looking back now.......... no overthinking anything............ no room for fear. It's full steam ahead from here on in; the easy part of this playoff journey is over. This whirlwind of a series starts tomorrow, may fans on both sides be treated to classic hockey, and may the best team win.