Montreal has been classified, by ourselves and outside people, as a hockey town. Now, I have never been totally convinced of that. I think we are more a Montreal Canadiens town than a pure hockey town. Evidence of this is that the two universities that have hockey teams, Concordia and McGill, play their home games in front of sparse crowds and the fact that we had a couple of incarnations of junior teams here before that did not do well at the box office.
That is why many so-called hockey experts voiced serious doubts when businessman Farrell Miller bought the St. John's Fog Devils and moved them to Montreal. The Junior de Montreal were born three seasons ago. You would have to say that owner Miller and coach Vincent Pascale have proven those doubters wrong as the team has done steady box office business and has made the QMJHL playoffs in their first two seasons.
On Friday night at the Verdun Auditorium the Junior de Montreal was participating in its 2010-11 season and home opener. This season there are high expectations for the team as the Montreal club has 7 players drafted by or affiliated with NHL teams. The biggest buzz surrounded the Montreal Canadiens' 2010 1st round draft choice and Pointe Claire native, Louis Leblanc. Leblanc played for Harvard last season and his rights were held by Chicoutimi before the Junior traded for them early this year. Believing that playing in the QMJHL was better for his career, Leblanc decided to play for the Junior de Montreal this season instead of going back to Harvard.
There are plenty of new faces on the team this season. It is an exciting time for management, the players and fans to discover new heroes. Besides Leblanc, there is also Canadiens' property Philippe Lefebvre, along with QMJHL veterans obtained from other teams like Denis Kindl, Charles Landry, Francis Meilleur, and Charles-Olivier Roussel that are players looking to make a good impression on the fans of the Montreal team. Players from last season not back with the team include Matthew Brenton, Chris Thorne, David Stich, Guillaume Asselin, Hubert Genest, Patrick Lapostolle, Hugo Roux, Vincent Bourgeois, and David Foucher. Two players from last season, Dillon Donnelly and Loik Poudrier, are now members of the Shawinigan Cataractes.
During the preseason Montreal did well posting a 4-1 record. Newcomer Jean-Christophe Laflamme was the highest point getter with 4 goals and 2 assists for 6 points. That he was the high scorer was a surprise and bodes well for the team. It demonstrates that they will be able to count on scoring from all four lines.
On this their opening night due to the aforementioned high number of players going to NHL camps there were a few important members of the Junior not playing. Goaltender Jean François Bérubé (Los Angeles Kings), right winger Trevor Parkes (Detroit Red Wings) and centre man Louis Marc Aubrey (Detroit Red Wings) had already left for their respective camps. On the positive side, this affords the coaching staff an opportunity to look at some players who might not have been in the starting lineup to see how they perform against the opposition.
Because of Bérubé's absence for the early part of the QMJHL season, the task of being the team's starting goaltender has fallen on the slim shoulders of 16-year-old Etienne Marcoux. The young man, who only turns 17 later this month, has the height at 6'1", but looks like a string bean in nets as he is listed at a measly 151 pounds. I expect that he will fill out as he ages. His backup on this evening was the equally inexperienced and youthful William Racicot.
The sometimes quite loud 3,447 fans did not have to wait long for the home side to score their first goal of the season. A mere 1:32 into the game David Rose put the Junior ahead 1-0. Before the goal Montreal had put tons of pressure on Shawinigan and were constantly in their end. The trio of Leblanc, Lefebvre and captain Nicolas Chouinard had some chances and look like they have the makings of a strong line.
A quick start and scoring the first goal must have been exactly what coach Vincent was hoping for, but he could not have been happy when his team allowed Shawinigan to tie the score a mere 30 seconds later. The offensively dangerous Yannick Veilleux's unassisted goal put a damper on the celebrations.
Montreal continued to dominate the play during the first half of the 1st period. Left winger David Rose had two more chances to score in the 1st period when he was sent in on partial breaks, but unfortunately he missed the net high both times. It seemed like that was the strategy of Montreal against the shorter Shawinigan net minder, Gabriel Girard (5'10"). I'm not sure it was the right one as they often missed the net on good opportunities.
It was a chippy start to the game with many stoppages in play resulting in scrums. One such scrum saw five players (Montreal's Lefebvre and Chouinard and Shawinigan's Donnelly, Tommy Tremblay and Raphael Pouliot) go to the box for roughing. Many of the scrums occurred when Montreal's Leblanc was on the ice as he was a marked man the entire game. It was a good sign that he showed he is not afraid to take the body and stand up for himself. A couple of times he showed some good discipline not retaliating after being roughed up.
Shawinigan pulled ahead to stay at 14:03 of the 1st period courtesy of a Montreal defensive breakdown. It was a pretty tic-tac-toe goal by Joé Dubé from Michael Claffey and Maximilien Le Sieur. Dubé was left totally uncovered in front of Marcoux, who had no chance on the goal. This defensive breakdown was a sign of things to come for the Montreal side. This being their first regular season game they showed signs of not really being totally comfortable playing together yet. They have to be more physical and clear the front of the net better or they will find themselves giving up plenty of goals this season, which is not typical of a Pascal Vincent coached team.
In the 2nd period Shawinigan exploded for three straight goals by Samuel Hodhod, Tremblay and Pouliot to make the score 5-1. It seemed like the Junior's heads were filled with the preseason prediction by prognosticators that they were one of the strongest teams in the QMJHL and had a chance to go to the Memorial Cup. After the 5th goal coach Vincent called a time out to have a talking to with his boys. I'm sure he reminded them that they could not just show up to games and expect to win because of their talent; they would still have to work and work hard for victories. Work and the desire to win did not seem to be at the top of the Junior's list over the middle section of this game. Vincent decided to leave Marcoux in the nets as, while his rebound control would have to improve, you could not really fault him on any of the goals.
The time out seemed to refocus Montreal and once again they began to dominate and create scoring chances. The goals in this game came in bunches and it was the Junior's turn to score three unanswered goals. Starting at the 10:02 mark of the 2nd they began to make the game interesting again. Hard worker Samuel Aquin was rewarded with a pretty goal off a nice feed from Rose then rapidly at the end of the period two defencemen chipped in with goals of their own. Francis Meilleur (on the power play) and Xavier Ouellet scored to make it 5-4 Shawinigan with one period left to play.
We in the stands wondered if the Junior could complete the comeback from 4 goals down. But it was not to be on this evening. They did try as they outshot the Cataractes 12-6 in the final frame, but Girard made a couple of good saves to preserve the victory for his team. No save in the game was better than the one he made with just over 9 minutes left in the game. Girard went post to post to make a spectacular save on Chouinard with his right pad. The chance came as a result of a 2-on-1 featuring Chouinard and Leblanc. Leblanc made a nice cross crease pass to Chouinard, but he could not lift it enough to get it past Girard.
Despite the fact that the Junior's first game ended in a 5-4 loss there were some reasons to be happy. Louis Leblanc looks to be the real deal. He can skate (several times he got by Cataractes defensemen with some outside speed), pass, has a good vision of the ice, and is not afraid to go into the corners to get the puck. The team also showed some character being down 5-1 to come back to make it a tight game. When the players off at NHL camps come back and Montreal can field its true team they are going to be a talented one. And if coach Vincent can keep them focused and working hard it is going to be a fun season in Montreal.
-On-Ice Officials: Referees: Pascal St-Jacques and Nicolas Dutil
Linesmen: Bruno Forest and Harold Dorvil
-Goals: 1st Period:
1:32 – Montreal – David Rose assisted by Jonathan Narbonne
2:02 – Shawinigan – Yannick Veilleux unassisted
14:03 – Shawinigan – Joé Dubé assisted by Michael Claffey and Maximilien Le Sieur
2:14 – Shawinigan – Samuel Hodhod assisted by Dillon Donnelly
7:18 – Shawinigan – Tommy Tremblay assisted by Anton Zlobin
7:44 – Shawinigan – Raphael Pouliot assisted by Tommy Tremblay and Mathieu Gagnon
10:02 – Montreal – Samuel Aquin assisted by David Rose and Francis Meilleur
18:30 – Montreal – (pp) Francis Meilleur assisted by Charles-Olivier Roussel and Louis Leblanc
19:27 – Montreal – Xavier Ouellet assisted by Eliezer Sherbatov and Denis Kindl
-Shots on Goal: Montreal: 36
-3 Stars: 1) Michael Bournival – Shawinigan
2) David Rose – Montreal
3) Tommy Tremblay – Shawinigan
-Final Score: Montreal: 4