For the third week running, the Chicoutimi Sagueneens hold down the number two spot in the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings.
Undefeated in regulation, the Sagueneens own a 3-0-1-0 record through the season’s early goings, with the club coming away with a pair of victories last week versus the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Gatineau Olympiques to sit tied for first place in the QMJHL’s East Division.
In the season’s opening month, a balanced scoring attack has led the Sagueneens’ offensive arsenal with seven players finding the back of the net at least once, while veteran forward and Montreal Canadiens prospect Samuel Houde, who finished last season with 43 points, and 2020 NHL Draft hopeful Hendrix Lapierre share the top of the leaderboard with four points apiece.
For Lapierre, all four points have come as assists, including a helper in Saturday’s come from behind victory over the Olympiques in which he set up Houde’s game-tying goal early into the final frame.
The first-overall selection from the 2018 QMJHL Entry Draft, Lapierre projects as an early first-round selection in the coming 2020 NHL Draft in Montreal given his nifty playmaking ability that has continued to draw the attention of talent evaluators. His talent was frequently on display last season when as a freshman he came up with 13 goals and 32 assists, or a 0.94 points per game average that ranked second among all QMJHL rookies.
Joining Lapierre up front is Canadiens up-and-comer Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who joined Chicoutimi this summer after winning the Memorial Cup last season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. A native of nearby Jonquiere, Que., Harvey-Pinard is sporting the captaincy and will be looked upon to provide a veteran voice as well as some reliable scoring punch to the team’s offensive core. To say Harvey-Pinard is embracing the challenge of leading his hometown team may be an understatement.
“There may be some pressure. It has been several years since the Sagueneens fans have had a team like this one this year,” Harvey-Pinard told Guillaume Lefrançois of La Presse. “I know that expectations will be high. When I was young, I attended ‘Sags’ games in the stands and fans wanted the Cup. It will be the same this year.”
Other key offensive contributors include third-year Russian-born forward Vladislav Kotkov who led the club in scoring in 2018-19 with 61 points across 65 appearances. A San Jose Sharks signee, Kotkov recently returned from NHL training camp and is cleared to play in Friday’s home opener against the Halifax Mooseheads.
There is also returning left-wing Justin Ducharme, another former Memorial Cup winner – doing so in 2018 with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan – who has his sights set on another championship and is ready to provide invaluable veteran experience to his junior teammates after recently joining the Vegas Golden Knights’ training camp as an invitee.
“Having already lived it (a championship) once, I know a little about the difficulties that it involves, both physically and psychologically,” Ducharme told Johanne Saint-Pierre of Le Quotidien. “The playoffs is a long road. It’s hard on the body and mind. I can bring experience and leadership to the team, and calm things down when things are not so good. It’s a long process where it’s important to stay focused on the present.”
Each skater will now have even greater opportunity after the Sagueneens announced Monday that Swiss-born forward Theo Rochette is expected to be sidelined for about a month as he recovers from mononucleosis. The 2020 NHL Draft hopeful finished tied for fourth in team scoring last year with 43 points and was off to a quick start in 2019-20 in collecting two assists in three games.
Meanwhile, the Sagueneens also remain hopeful for the return of blue-liner Artemi Kniazev, a 2019 second-round selection by the Sharks who was assigned to the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda on Monday as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury.
Last season, Kniazev impressed as a first-year leading all Chicoutimi rearguards with 13 goals, while ranking inside the top-10 league-wide. In his absence, and following the departure of last year’s top scoring blue-liner in 20-year-old Morgan Nauss, the Sagueneens have turned to hulking rearguard Louis Crevier, who has already lit the lamp three times this season after going goalless in 44 games a year ago. Kniazev’s absence has also opened up an import slot for Latvian blue-liner Harijs Brants, who has appeared in all four games after being selected 33rd in the 2019 CHL Import Draft.
Bringing the whole group together is third-year netminder Alexis Shank, who through four contests this season remains unbeaten in regulation as he has limited the opposition to 11 goals to come away with a .902 save percentage and 2.58 goals-against average.
Continued strong performances between the pipes and throughout the lineup will be crucial as the Sagueneens look to push their unbeaten in regulation streak to six games. They’ll get a boost when they skate on home ice for the first time this season in a pair of weekend dates with the Mooseheads and Cape Breton Eagles.