McKnight: QMJHL playoff preview

With the QMJHL playoffs set to begin this Thursday evening (Mar. 26), Hockey Prospectus’ QMJHL analyst, David McKnight, is here to walk us through the first round matchups.

(1) Rimouski Oceanic vs (16) Victoriaville Tigres

While this won’t be the type of mismatch the league has usually seen in the 1 vs 16 series, the result will be no different than usual. The Oceanic were the league’s number one team in the regular season for a reason and will prove to be too much for the Tigres. Victoriaville has some dangerous weapons up front in Angelo Miceli and Samuel Blais, but overall they do not have the depth to match up with Rimouski. The Tigres made some deals at mid-season to get younger and they knew this would ultimately be the end result.

Player to watch: Samuel Morin, D (Rimouski) – The Oceanic’s behemoth defenceman has made great strides this season at both ends of the ice and will be a key player in this year’s playoffs. He excels in the shutdown role and will be counted upon to eliminate Victoriaville’s top forwards.

Rimouski in 4

 

(2) Moncton Wildcats vs (15) Chicoutimi Sagueneens

This series pits the highest scoring team in the regular season against the team that scored the fewest goals among those who qualified for the playoffs. That disparity in offence presents the Moncton Wildcats with a clear advantage over the Sagueneens. Chicoutimi has largely been a disappointment this season, while the Cats have been one of the more pleasant surprises in the Q. The Sags will certainly hang their hat on the fact they had a winning record against the Maritime and West Divisions this season and scored recent victories over both Rimouski and Blainville-Boisbriand.  Nonetheless, the lack of offence from Chicoutimi will ultimately be their demise against the run-and-gun Wildcats.

Player to watch: Conor Garland, RW (Moncton) – It almost goes without saying that the league’s leading scorer will be the player to watch in this series. He and teammate Ivan Barbashev combined to form one the league’s most fearsome duos this season. The diminutive forward has five points in 11 previous playoff games, but this will be the first time he is the focal point of his team’s offence.

Moncton in 6

 

(3) Blainville-Boisbriand Armada vs (14) Gatineau Olympiques

This promises to be one of the most exciting series of the opening round. The Olympiques were a massive disappointment for most of the season and as late as February they looked almost a sure bet to miss the playoffs. Benoit Groulx’s troops found a way to recover and were one of the league’s hottest teams down the stretch. The Armada stumbled to the finish line, but overall they were a picture of consistency throughout the regular season. They’re a sound defensive team who relies on the line of Nikita Jevpalovs, Danick Martel and Phillippe Sanche for the majority of their offence. Gatineau will know exactly who they need to contain in order to have success.

Player to watch: Francois Brassard, G (Gatineau) – The overage netminder will be looking to bounce back from a poor playoff performance last season with Quebec.  He lost his starting job to then 16-year-old Callum Booth in an opening round loss to Rouyn-Noranda. That seemed to carry over to this season with a poor first half in Cape Breton, but he found his game after being released by the Screaming Eagles and picked up by Gatineau.  He will absolutely have to continue his solid play for the Olympiques to pull off the upset.

Gatineau in 6

 

(4) Quebec Remparts vs (13) Cape Breton Screaming Eagles

The enigmatic Quebec Remparts draw the inconsistent Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in what could be an interesting first round match-up.  The Remparts have largely been a mystery all season with stretches of poor play and Anthony Duclair recently finding himself a healthy scratch.  The Eagles were expected to challenge for a division title this season, but fell far short of the hype.  Cape Breton netminder Alexandre Belanger will be looking to eliminate Quebec for a third straight year, doing so with Rouyn-Noranda the past two seasons.  The loss of defenceman and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Olivier Leblanc is a huge blow to Cape Breton’s upset chances.  The Remparts may ultimately have too much skill up front for the Eagles to handle.

Player to watch: Zach Fucale, G (Quebec) – At this time it’s not clear whether Fucale will get the call for Game 1 of this series.  That in itself speak to the poor play that has often plagued the Remparts goaltender in his short time in Quebec.  In a series where both teams have the weapons to put the puck in the net, it may come down to whoever gets the best goaltending. If called upon, Fucale will need to answer the bell or we could see Callum Booth sooner than later.

Quebec in 5

 

(5) Shawinigan Cataractes vs (12) Halifax Mooseheads

The Shawinigan Cataractes may enter this year’s playoffs as the league’s most underrated team.  What they lack in star power they more than make up for with great depth up front and on the back end.  The Cataractes have six forwards who scored at least 20 goals this season.  That depth is supplemented with quite possibly the QMJHL’s top goaltender, in overage German Marvin Cupper.  The Mooseheads can’t match Shawinigan’s depth, but they do have the ever dangerous pair of Nikolaj Ehlers and Timo Meier.  Halifax’s dynamic duo have the ability to change a game, but can they change a series against a much more complete Cataractes squad?

Player to watch: Christophe Lalonde, RW (Shawinigan) – The Cataractes went out and acquired the overage forward in order to provide some veteran leadership and stability to a young line-up.  He will now be looked upon to guide this team in what is hoped to be a lengthy playoff run.  Lalonde has largely been disappointing in past playoffs with only three goals in 26 career games and Shawinigan hopes that will change this year.

Shawinigan in 5

 

(6) Val-d’Or Foreurs vs (11) Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

One of the league’s top rivalries will take center stage in the opening round of the playoffs.  The close proximity of the two cities always makes for hotly contested meetings between the two.  This will be a clash of the Foreurs’ offense and experience against the Huskies’ defensive play and youth.  Val-d’Or had 11 players with at least 10 goals in the regular season and finished second overall in goals.  The Huskies can put the puck in the net as well, but can ill afford to get into a shootout with their rivals.  Rouyn-Noranda has a rookie duo of Samuel Harvey and Jeremy Belisle in goal and they may get overwhelmed by the devastating offence of the QMJHL’s defending champions.  Anthony Richard, Anthony Beauregard and Nicolas Aube-Kubel all finished in the top 20 in league scoring, making Val-d’Or the only team with three players in that category.

Player to watch: Jeremie Fraser, D (Val-d’Or) – It’s all about the offence in Val-d’Or, but Fraser is the rock on their back end and a huge key to this series.  The 20-year-old is a stabilizing influence for a young defence corps and his experience in playing a big part of the Foreurs’ championship run last season will be invaluable.

Val-d’Or in 6

 

(7) Baie-Comeau Drakkar vs (10) Saint John Sea Dogs

This is a battle of two teams that both had a strong first half to the season, but stumbled throughout the second half. The Drakkar still have players remaining from back-to-back league final appearances and that may prove to be a difference maker over a mainly inexperienced Sea Dogs squad. Baie-Comeau almost always seems to have a big, tough team that is made for the playoffs. The most interesting match-up to watch in this series may be the showdown in goal between Baie-Comeau’s Philippe Cadorette and Saint John’s Sebastien Auger. Both are considered to be among the top goaltenders in the league, although both struggled in the second half along with their respective teams.

Player to watch: Nicolas Meloche, D (Baie-Comeau) – The 2015 draft eligible missed most of the second half of the season due to injury, but is expected to be back in time for the opening game of this series.  It’s little coincidence that the Drakkar’s poor play coincided with the loss of their top defenceman.  If he can return to top form in a hurry, he gives the Drakkar that extra edge.

Baie-Comeau in 6

 

(8) Sherbrooke Phoenix vs (9) Charlottetown Islanders

It is little surprise that the series involving the eighth and ninth seeds is expected to come right down to the wire.  Special teams will play a huge role in this one as the Phoenix and Islanders had the worst and second worst even strength goal differential respectively among the 16 teams who qualified for the playoffs.  The big question mark for Sherbrooke is in goal as Alex Bureau and rookie Evan Fitzpatrick have been up and down all season.  Meanwhile, Mason McDonald has had a solid second half in goal for the Islanders.  The Phoenix has been excellent at home this season and that may give them the very slight edge, as they look for their first ever playoff series win.  Charlottetown has not advanced past the first round since 2004.

Player to watch: Daniel Audette, C (Sherbrooke) – The Montreal Canadiens draft pick will finally get a chance to show his stuff on the playoff stage. The dynamic offensive producer has been exciting to watch all season long and is key to Sherbrooke’s offence. It will be an interesting battle between himself and Charlottetown’s Daniel Sprong as to who can outshine the other.

Sherbrooke in 7

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