Saint John Sea Dogs captain Spencer Smallman describes this season’s two games against the Chicoutimi Sagueneens as “war.”
Although the Sea Dogs won both contests, they were close. There was a 1-0 victory at Harbour Station on Jan. 20 and a 4-2 triumph on Feb. 18 at the Centre Georges-Vezina. The two tilts were also fraught with physicality.
All of that sets the stage for what should be an entertaining QMJHL semifinal series. The best-of-seven battle opens with Game 1 Friday night at Harbour Station, also the site of Saturday’s Game 2.
“They swept their first-round series against Victoriaville, which is a good team, and they beat Rouyn-Noranda,” Smallman said about the Sags. “Any team that beats the defending champs is a really good team.”
The Sea Dogs enter the semifinal series with a perfect 8-0 record after sweeping both Rimouski and Val-d’Or. The Port City squad’s offence is powered by five players averaging better than a point per game: Mathieu Joseph (7-8-15), Thomas Chabot (3-10-13), Matthew Highmore (2-10-12), Smallman (8-3-11) and Simon Bourque (2-7-9). On the other side of the puck, 19-year-old netminder Callum Booth has a 1.71 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage, while Saint John’s penalty-killing unit has allowed just one power-play goal.
The Sags are coming off Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime victory in Game 7 of their quarterfinal series with Rouyn-Noranda. Chicoutimi trailed the Huskies 3-1 early in the third period before mounting a comeback.
“It’s always special to play a Game 7,” Chicoutimi head coach and general manager Yanick Jean said. “It was an emotional experience. Now it’s about bringing it (the emotions) back down.”
Jean credits strong chemistry and resilience for the way his team regrouped after absorbing a 9-2 loss in Game 6. He said the approach was simple entering the seventh game.
“We didn’t worry about the result,” the veteran bench boss said. “We just tried to go in headfirst and leave it all out there, and the score worked in our favour.”
Olivier Galipeau, a 19-year-old defenceman acquired in a mid-season trade with Val-d’Or, scored two goals in Game 7, including the overtime winner. Other key acquisitions during the trade period include Joey Ratelle (5-5-10), along with twins Kelly Klima (5-1-6) and Kevin Klima (0-4-4).
“Everything fit right away chemistry-wise in the locker room,” Jean said. “We have a lot of leadership.”
The Sea Dogs also benefitted from major upgrades. Aside from adding Booth, they acquired two players with championship experience in Bourque and Julien Gauthier (4-2-6).
“The emptied the house to win,” Jean said. “We respect how good they are, but we believe in ourselves and trust our locker room.”
Chicoutimi’s attack is led by Russian forward Dmitry Zhukenov (5-11-16), followed by Nicolas Roy (6-7-13), Galipeau (4-7-11), Ratelle (5-5-10) and Frederic Allard (2-7-9). Twenty-year-old netminder Julio Billia has a 2.74 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage.
“They made some key acquisitions at Christmas and they certainly improved their team,” Saint John head coach Danny Flynn said. “But our guys are rested and we’re anxious to get at it, and we want to test ourselves against one of the top four teams in the league.”
The series switches to Chicoutimi for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. The Olympic-size ice surface at the Centre Georges-Vezina is a test for visiting teams, but the extra width could work to Saint John’s advantage.
“It’s an adjustment, for sure, but we just have to use our speed to our advantage and I think we’ll be OK,” Smallman said.
Highmore agrees with that assessment.
“It’s an adjustment for us, but we’re just going to take it one game at a time and go from there,” the 20-year-old centre said. “You just have to get used to it and realize you’re going to have a little bit more time with the puck. For us, it’s very important to get off to a good start and that’s what we’re focused on.’’
Sea Dogs forward Bokondji Imama loves playing in Chicoutimi. The Sags were a fierce rival when he played for Baie-Comeau, and the overager is relishing the opportunity to perform at the Centre Georges-Vezina in a playoff atmosphere.
“You have a little more space and it could be good for us because we’re a team that skates a lot,” Imama said. “The last time we went there, things went well, so we’re not worried about it. I really enjoy playing in Chicoutimi on that big ice.”
Ironically, the Sags are in the same place the Sea Dogs were last year. Saint John needed seven games to defeat the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the quarterfinals before a five-game semifinal loss to Shawinigan.
“We had guys missing and guys were banged up with injuries,” Imama said about last year’s final four experience. “It’s a grind for everyone. I don’t know what kind of shape Chicoutimi is in right now. I just know that we are ready, well rested and everyone is 100 per cent.”