Columnist Patrick McNeil tells the tale of two franchises.
A tale of two histories as Saint John, Blainville-Boisbriand clash in final
A generation of hockey fans has grown up with an 18 team QMJHL, and in 2017 its two most recent entries will lock horns to crown a champion.
One could be forgiven for forgetting the link between the Saint John Sea Dogs and the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, because the two clubs have taken very different roads since entering the QMJHL in 2005.
Life for the Armada began as the St. John’s Fog Devils, who finished ahead of the Sea Dogs in their first two campaigns in the league. But after three years on the Rock having only won a single playoff game, the Devils morphed into the Montreal Junior. There was progress, but also heartbreak, including in 2011 when the No. 2 seeded Junior crashed in Round 2. In Blainville, the club has won nine of 14 playoff rounds since arriving in 2012, but this is the first time the men in black and white have made the league final.
Had the Junior performed as expected in the 2011 postseason, their opponent would have been the Sea Dogs in the league final. Instead, Saint John topped Gatineau in six games to become President Cup champions, and a year later would repeat by sweeping Rimouski. Since the league introduced its league wide, 1 versus 16 playoff seeding in 2011, the Dogs have won titles in both years as the top ranked squad, and are now looking to be the first Maritime team to capture a third President Cup.
Amazingly, the Dogs have avoided facing any other top four clubs in their playoff voyages as regular season champions in this format. But Saint John didn’t have it easy this April in their six game series against Chicoutimi, as the Sags were the first team to ever take a top ranked Sea Dogs club past five contests in the opening three rounds. Blainville-Boisbriand comes in as the slightly more rested squad. The Armada dropped the opener to Charlottetown, but responded with authority, winning the next four games and scoring 19 times in the process.
Saint John and Blainville split their regular season matches, both that took place prior to the trading period. The Armada won 3-2 at home in October thanks to an Alexandre Alain overtime goal, but the Dogs countered in December with a 4-1 win at Harbour Station. Saint John captain Spencer Smallman led the way over the two games, collecting five points. There is no post-season history to draw from, as the Sea Dogs haven’t played any incarnation of the Armada in the playoffs.
Both teams have dodged major injuries this spring, though Armada supporters wonder what their group would look like if star defenseman Jérémy Roy hadn’t been injured 10 games into the season. Fans in Cape Breton will hope to see Mira native Cole Reginato back in the lineup after he missed Game 6 in Chicoutimi. Reginato is the lone former Cape Breton player on the Port City squad, while former Eagles PierreLuc Dubois and Tobie Bisson are skating for Blainville-Boisbriand.
Dubois was a major acquisition at the trading period, and along with former Voltigeur Alex Barré-Boulet, has helped temporarily remake the identity of the Armada. Ranked third and first in playoff scoring respectively, the new forwards have lifted a Blainville outfit that finished in the bottom half in goals for in the regular season, to one that is second in playoff goals this year. Alain has done his part as well, producing at over a point a game. Despite a few ordinary performances in the semi-finals, the Joël Bouchard coached side has an ace in nets with Samuel Montembeault and his .923 post-season save percentage.
Callum Booth hasn’t produced numbers as eye popping in goal, but the Sea Dogs can feel confident having allowed less than two goals per game this post-season. Mathieu Joseph is second among point getters up front, while the Saint John offense is really being driven from the blue-line thanks to the efforts of Simon Bourque and Thomas Chabot, the latter of who has posted a gaudy +24 plus/minus in the playoffs.
The power play could be one weakness in the league leading Sea Dog squad, drawing just three power plays per contest and only producing at a 15.4 per cent rate. Blainville has been devastating with their man advantage, scoring 32.8 per cent of the time. However, the Dogs hold the Q’s top penalty kill in the playoffs, while Blainville have killed less than 75 per cent of its penalties.
At even strength or special teams, the final should be a great series, and it all begins tonight in New Brunswick.
The Saint John Sea Dogs hope to have Cole Reginato of Albert Bridge back in the lineup after he missed Game 6 in Chicoutimi.