The Halifax Mooseheads came up short against an under-staffed Saint John Sea Dogs squad on Saturday afternoon and settled for a 15th-place overall finish in the Quebec Major Hockey League standings.
The result of the 2-1 setback to the league’s top team on the last day of the 68-game regular season schedule means that Halifax will meet the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, the league’s second-seeded team, in the first round of the playoffs.
The best-of-seven series will open on March 24 and 25 in the western Quebec city of 42,000 that is located about 625 kilometres northwest of Montreal.
Games 3, 4, and 5, if necessary, will be played at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on March 28, 29 and 31.
“We can’t control what happens with the outcome,” captain Keigan Goetz said after the game about a first-round playoff opponent. “All we can control is how we play and who we have to get ready for. We’ll figure it out on the weekend and we’re going to be ready no matter what team it is.”
In another league game, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles clipped the last-place Wildcats 5-1 in Moncton. The Eagles finished the season in seventh place with a 39-25-2-2 record for 82 points. They will open the playoffs at home against the Gatineau Olympiques, who had 70 points in 10th place.
The Mooseheads opened the scoring Saturday in front of a capacity crowd of 10,595 fans at Scotiabank Centre. Nineteen-year-old winger Maxime Fortier took a pass in full flight through the middle of the ice from defenceman Jordan Lepage and broke in alone on Saint John goaltender Alex D’Orio. Fortier pulled off a nifty deke before slipping the puck into the open side, capping his third full season as a Moosehead with career highs of 32 goals and 87 points.
Import centre Nico Hischier picked up the secondary assist to finish his rookie season as runner-up to Fortier for the team scoring lead with 38 goals and 86 points. It’s likely to be Hischier’s only season in Halifax, as the 18-year-old Swiss sensation is expected to go first or second overall in the NHL entry draft in June.
The Mooseheads were unable to salt away the Sea Dogs despite the fact that Saint John, which had already clinched top spot in the league, did not dress nine regular skaters who are key contributors. Still, second-year Sea Dog Joe Veleno contributed more than enough to upset the Mooseheads. At 6:28 of the second period, the 17-year-old centre picked up a rebound on a Saint John power play and fired the puck into the open side as Mooseheads rookie goaltender Alexis Gravel desperately dove across the crease.
Veleno then made a heads-up play on the winning goal just 26 seconds later. He swung behind the goal line with the puck and just as it appeared he would round the net, he fed a pass back to Bokondji Imama in the right circle. With Gravel starting to move across the crease to thwart a potential Veleno wraparound, Imama fired home his 41st goal of the season before the 16-year-old goalie could reverse his momentum and get back to the open side of the net.
“I don’t think we came out with as much energy as we wanted to and that we should have,” Mooseheads forward Jake Coughler said, alluding to a bit of a team letdown after clinching a playoff spot the night before in an overtime loss to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
“It took us a while to get going. We only really played our style for about the last five minutes. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to but we’re getting ready for playoffs.”
The Mooseheads had opportunities to even the score. Midway through the second period, Lepage took a cross-ice pass from Hischier and rang a shot off the post from the left point.
At 5:46 of the third period, it appeared Halifax had tied the score. Hischier carried the puck over the blue-line and dished off to Fortier, who flung a shot toward the net that defenceman Frederic Aube tipped int. But on video review, the officials confirmed what many of the sell-out crowd knew — that Fortier preceded Hischier over the line, rendering the play offside and the goal disallowed.
The Mooseheads, who were outshot 30-24 on the afternoon, finished the season with a 27-35-3-3 record for 60 points. Losers 14 more times than they were winners on the season, the Mooseheads took advantage of a forgiving Quebec league playoff structure that only eliminates two of the league’s 18 teams.
Had they won Saturday, the Mooseheads would have faced the Charlottetown Islanders in the first round. But the loss assured them a place in the Quebec league draft lottery and a scant chance to move up to first overall.
The loss also means that Mooseheads first-year head coach Andre Tourigny will face the Huskies in the playoffs, a team that he coached for 10 seasons. The Huskies, league champions last season who came within an overtime goal of winning the Memorial Cup, have former Mooseheads captain Taylor Ford patrolling their blue-line.
Goetz, one of three Mooseheads overagers recognized in a pre-game ceremony for putting the finishing touches on major junior careers, said the team has been in playoff mode for the past several games in an effort to secure a post-season berth.
“Leading up to the playoffs, there are always going to be tough games. Everyone is getting into playoff mode. It’s a testament to how good the league is this year, too, how tough the teams are that we are going to play. We responded pretty well and played a playoff style.”
Although none of the three Mooseheads who will move on from junior started the season in a Halifax uniform, the ceremony and final regular-season game were emotional for Goetz, Coughler and Aube.
“I enjoyed this game, every moment of it,” said Goetz, a native of Clinton, Ont., who joined the team early in the season. “The last game of your regular season career is a big one. Everyone felt it throughout the room. We have a pretty tight-knit group here and we were all emotional today. The game went well. We had our battles, we had our tough times but we played pretty good. This is a big one. The last one is always one to remember.”
Coughler, who hails from St. Catharines, Ont., met with his parents and brother outside the team dressing room immediately after the game.
“It’s obviously super special to have them here,” Coughler said. They sacrificed so much for me. It was a little emotional.”
Coughler and Aube, who is from Sherbrooke, Que., were acquired in January in respective trades with the Islanders and the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
“It’s special for sure,” Coughler said. “I wasn’t here long but they treated me like I was. When I came in here, right away everyone was super welcoming, the boys were super welcoming and you couldn’t ask for much more.”