After winning their third consecutive Quebec Major Junior Hockey League regular-season title, banners being raised and trophy ceremonies have become a little old hat for the Saint John Sea Dogs.
They are the defending Memorial Cup champions and still ranked as the number one team in the Canadian Hockey League by almost all accounts. This might sound strange, but when you go 50-15-0-3 while rarely icing your full lineup, winning can sometimes breed a sense of complacency.
“After playing on the biggest stage you can play on at our level,” explains Sea Dogs veteran Stephen MacAulay, “there are some games that (are) hard to get up for, I guess you could say.”
The biggest challenge for Saint John head coach Gerard Gallant and general manager Mike Kelly this year might not have been matching lines or adjusting their roster, but rather dealing with injuries and motivating the healthy players to compete at a high level every night.
“I think for sure it can (be difficult),” said Kelly. “When you start the season it can seem like a pretty big mountain to climb. You know that the challenge is really going to be in the playoffs, so to be ready mentally to play every night and not only to play every night, but then you have the added challenge of having a target on your back because you’re the team that everybody wants to beat.
“It’s a challenge and that’s why I believe that if you win when you’re supposed to win, that’s the greatest challenge in sport.”
Heading into the QMJHL playoffs – which begin Friday against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (23-42-1-2) – there’s no doubt the Sea Dogs are heavy favourites. They hit the 50-win plateau again this season and became the first team in QMJHL history to win the Jean Rougeau Trophy as regular-season champions three years running.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re playing the top place team or the bottom, for (Gallant) it’s not always about the result of the game,” said MacAulay. “At the end of the day he wants us to play a strong game. If we lose or come out on the losing end of a good performance then he’s not all that disappointed in us.
“He just expects a lot from us and we try to give it to him every game.”
During the course of the season, a number of players like MacAulay have had to take on more responsibility and ice time because of injuries and losing players to NHL training camps and the world junior tournament. Star forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick of the Florida Panthers, was sidelined more than a month after breaking his foot. Russian sniper Stanislav Galiev only played 20 games this season because of a wrist injury suffered at Washington Capitals training camp. Slovakian forward Tomas Jurco had a recurring hip-flexor/groin injury. Forwards Maxime Villemaire and Ryan Tesink injured their knees and Devon Oliver-Dares broke his collarbone. And that’s not even a full list of their casualties this season.
“It’s been a much different year than last year with all the injuries we’ve had and guy away at world juniors,” said MacAulay, a sixth-round pick of the St. Louis Blues. “We’ve definitely battled more adversity, but as for putting wins together, it’s been pretty similar. We still have great chemistry on and off the ice.
“I think we can do it again.”
The Sea Dogs boast 11 NHL prospects and 17 returning players from last year’s team that won the Memorial Cup in Mississauga. Their current third line of Tesink, MacAulay and Galiev are all NHL prospects. You could ice an all-star team based on the likes of Huberdeau, Jurco, Galiev, Charlie Coyle, Danick Gauthier, Nathan Beaulieu, and Zack Phillips alone.
Gauthier, who signed a three-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this month, has had a breakout year for the ‘Dogs setting a franchise record for goals in a season, leading the team with 47 goals and 39 assists for 86 points in 66 games. He’s on the top line with Huberdeau and Coyle, who left a scholarship at Boston University to make the move to major junior hockey.
“I can only imagine playing against a line like that,” said MacAulay. “Especially me, because I’m a defensive forward; they would give me headaches for sure. But even if they get shut down, we have a couple other scoring lines that can do damage as well. We have four lines that can score, really – three lines that could be top two on any other team.”
Coyle, a first-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in 2010, joined the Sea Dogs after playing for Team USA at the 2012 world junior championship. He played 16 games in his sophomore season in Boston before making the jump to the QMJHL, which garnered a lot of attention.
“He’s a world-class player,” said Kelly of the 6-foot-2, 208-pound versatile forward. “The bottom line is we didn’t think there was a player like that available in our league as far as a player with that size, skating ability and skill. When we heard the might have been an opportunity for him to come out (to Saint John) we pursued him because we knew there wasn’t another player out there like that.
“You’re talking about a player who is probably capable of playing in the American Hockey League right now, playing at our level.”
In addition to that already stacked lineup, the Sea Dogs traded for veteran defenceman Charles Olivier-Roussel, 20, in October just after he was sent back to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.
According to Buzzing The Net statistician, Rob Pettapiece, the Sea Dogs have a 98 percent probability of beating Cape Breton in their first round matchup with the most likely outcome being a four-game sweep. For his money, MacAulay thinks the Memorial Cup host Shawinigan Cataractes could be one of Saint John’s biggest threats. The Sea Dogs lost out on the Cup bid to Shawinigan last summer and that has created some bad blood between the two franchises. In their last meeting Sea Dogs defenceman Ian Saab was suspended eight games for a cross-check after the whistle on Shawinigan’s Dillon Donnelly.
“The two cities and the two teams have a natural rivalry,” said MacAulay. “I hope we see them in the playoff; it’ll be a good series.”
Many are already predicting that showdown, given that they were the top two teams in the QMJHL during the regular season. Kelly, however, believes the road to a second Memorial Cup is fraught with more challenges because the expectations on his team are higher.
“This team has had a target on its back for most of the year,” said Kelly. “Last year’s team didn’t. Every team has its own personality and it’s usually carved out during adversity as a group in the playoffs when you’re challenged. I expect that that’s what’s going to happen and the book will be written on this team after the playoffs are over.
“The potential is there, but you are what you do and not what you say.”