SAINT JOHN – It’s hard to believe the Saint John Sea Dogs have played half of their schedule without star forward Jonathan Huberdeau.
The 18-year-old from St. Jerome, Que., was poised for another breakout season after returning from the Florida Panthers training camp, but a fractured foot sidelined him for most of November and December. Still, he healed in time for the world junior championship and helped Canada win a bronze medal.
“I had a little slump at the beginning when I came back (to Saint John),’’ Huberdeau said. “The last few games have been going well personally, but as long as the team is going well, I’m happy with that and I think that’s what we’re doing now.’’
That’s an understatement. With three weeks left in the season, the Sea Dogs had won 14 straight, the Canadian Hockey League’s longest winning streak of the season. The Port City squad is also pursuing its third straight Jean Rougeau Trophy for most points in the regular season.
Reaching that milestone would set a new Quebec Major Junior Hockey League record. And if the Sea Dogs do establish a new standard of excellence, Huberdeau will have played a major role. Although the NHL’s third overall pick in 2011 had played just 29 games after this past weekend, he still had 22 goals and 58 points.
“He’s a star player in this league and we’ve got a lot of star players on our hockey team, but he’s been exceptional,’’ Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s a good leader and he’s a good character kid. When he plays his best game, he’s really tough to stop.’’
The same can be said of other Saint John offensive forwards Zack Phillips, Danick Gauthier, Tomas Jurco, Stanislav Galiev and Charlie Coyle. Complementing that firepower up front is the grit and checking from the likes of Stephen MacAulay, Ryan Tesink and Maxime Villemaire.
“You look at their top three lines and they’re obviously prepared for a long playoff run,’’ Cape Breton Screaming Eagles defenceman Stephen Woodworth said. “Once they get going in the offensive zone, they can be tough to play against. They’re a team that feeds off turnovers. That’s how they manage their game. In the neutral zone, they’re very aggressive and they’re looking for any turnover to try and go in on the attack.’’
The Sea Dogs’ team speed isn’t just a weapon while they control the puck. Team quickness and intensity in the offensive zone can also result in opponents coughing up the puck.
“We try to force turnovers with our forecheck,’’ Huberdeau said. “We have a lot of speed and when we finish our checks, we can cause turnovers and take advantage of that.’’
For now, the Sea Dogs are focused on defending their President’s Cup championship. But after this season, several players will move on to the pro ranks.
Huberdeau, however, could return if there’s an NHL lockout. The Saint John captain will be 19 next season and ineligible to play in the American Hockey League.
“I would come back here, it wouldn’t be a problem,’’ Huberdeau said. “If there’s a lockout, for sure I would try to come back here. We’ll see what happens and what the organization wants to do with me.’’