The Moncton Wildcats and Saint John Sea Dogs took two big steps toward creating the first all-New Brunswick final in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League history this weekend.
Perhaps the bigger feat between both teams taking a 2-0 series lead is the Wildcats’ ability to take that 2-0 lead in two road games. Drummondville has obviously figured out how to win games in the last couple of years. One year after finishing dead last, the Volts assembled a powerful team in 2008-09 and rolled into the Memorial Cup by winning the league title.
This year, with a few key pieces missing, but otherwise a solid base of returners, the Volts again made it look easy in getting into the league semifinals. But the team they’ve run into appears to be that much better.
And it is.
Moncton, from the beginning of the season, knew that its back end would be its calling card. The Wildcats have, in my opinion, three of the top six defensemen in the entire league on their back end, and their Nos. 4 and 5 would be top-pairing defensemen for many of the other teams in the league.
Add to that the return of 20-year-old goalie Nicolas Riopel, a goalie in the Philadelphia system, and the Wildcats are nearly impenetrable from the blue line back. That allowed the team to address offense at the deadline, and they did, acquiring Gabriel Bourque and Nicolas Deschamps. Even the loss of Russian cry-baby forward Kirill Kabanov hasn’t slowed the train down.
Moncton was my pick to win the league following the moves at the trade deadline this year, and I’m sticking with it.
Saint John, meanwhile, might be the most unheralded league-leading club since, well, Lewiston in 2007. The lack of movement at the deadline caused people around the league to start writing the Sea Dogs off then and there. Lewiston is the only team in recent memory to have done the same thing.
Marco Cousineau is a solid goalie and could match Riopel save-for-save, should that matchup come to fruition. But let’s not forget that the Dogs’ and Tigres’ series is a 2-3-2 format, so, until Saint John wins a road game, this isn’t over by a long shot.
Saint John and Victoriaville both have high-flying offenses, and the Dogs’ defense, on paper, is a touch better.
Pirates on the precipice
The Portland Pirates certainly haven’t been making things easy on themselves this week. They worked hard all season to get into the top two of the Atlantic Division, so they could have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and then promptly squandered that advantage with a pair of home losses in front of not-so-great crowds at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Two games, two lackadaisical efforts, two losses.
And the scariest part for Portland isn’t necessarily that the teams are headed back to Manchester, because Portland has played well in Manch-vegas this season. The scariest part is that the AHL’s best goalie, former Lewiston Maineiacs keeper Jonathan Bernier, hasn’t had to steal a game yet.
You always look to a star goalie to have to steal a game or two for you in the playoffs, especially as the lower seed against a top opponent. But Bernier, while steady, has yet to be truly tested beyond reasonable means in the series.
The Pirates have appeared slow, almost bumbling, like some of them care more about being called up for Buffalo’s playoffs in the NHL than about helping the Pirates get through their own playoffs.
Game 3 on Monday night now becomes a must-win for the Pirates, while the Monarchs can be a bit more comfortable, not only having stolen one game and secured home-ice advantage, but having taken a pair on the road.
Who saw this coming?
In the National Hockey League, all eight playoff series’ went to 1-1, meaning the eight road teams, the eight lower seeds, all succeeded in flipping home-ice advantage to their side.
There have been seven overtime games in the first five days of the playoffs, and each of the first eight games of the playoffs were one goal games.
The Colorado-San Jose series was 30 seconds in Game 1 from having three consecutive OT games to begin the series, and the Montreal-Washington series still has that chance, with both Games 1 and 2 going to OT. Game 3 is Monday night.
Boston completed a stirring comeback from down 2-0 to defeat Buffalo, and with Tomas Vanek out, Buffalo could be in trouble.
Montreal blew a 4-1 lead as former Lewiston keeper Jaroslav Halak looked like a mere mortal for the first time in recent memory while Ovechkin and co. finally showed up.
Philadelphia, for all of the talk about their goaltending woes, has taken it to New Jersey twice, and leads the Devils and all-world goalie Martin Brodeur 2-1, with Game 4 set for Philly.
After a Game 1 scare, Pittsburgh appears to have righted the ship against Ottawa.
In the West, as usual, the Sharks are in trouble. Two of the three game-winners — both of Colorado’s — have been tortuously bad luck. One went off of Sharks’ defenseman Rob Blake’s skate on a shot from the corner, and the other was an attempted wrap-around behind the net by Sharks’ defenseman Dan Boyle that hit his own goalie and bounced in.
So, in a sense, San Jose has scored three game-winning goals in three games, and trails 2-1.
Phoenix was considered by many (including, admittedly, me) to be the weakest of the top four seeds, especially against Detroit. But look which team is up 2-1, wrestling back home-ice advantage from the Wings. Nashville swiped a game from the Blackhawks early, but in a rare goaltender’s duel, Antii Niemi bested Pekka Rinne as the Hawks came back with a 2-0 win to even the series at 1-1.
It’s not even worth predicting at this point. But it would not be out of the realm of possibility to see seven of these first-round series go at least six games. It’s that close.
And, as hockey fans, all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.