Jonathan Huberdeau scored twice and had an assist and Nathan Beaulieu had a pair of assists to lead the Saint John Sea Dogs to a 4-1 victory against the host Shawinigan Cataractes at Bionest Centre in Shawinigan, Que., on Wednesday in the final game of the preliminary round at the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
The win gives Saint John, the defending champion, a berth in Friday's semifinal, where it will face the winner of Thursday's tiebreaker game between Shawinigan and the Edmonton Oil Kings. The winner of the semifinal game will face the London Knights in the championship game Sunday.
Stanislav Galiev and Ryan Tesink also had goals for Saint John and goalie Mathieu Corbeil stopped 30 of 31 shots in the win.
"I can't find a player I didn't like tonight on my team," Saint John coach Gerard Gallant said.
Anton Zlobin scored for Shawinigan, and goalie Gabriel Girard made 34 saves on 37 shots.
It was a physical, penalty-filled game between the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League rivals. The teams combined for 72 penalty minutes, including 46 in the third period. The game ended with Shawinigan coach Eric Veilleux and Saint John assistant coach Mike Kelly yelling at each other over the benches.
"I was asking Gerard [Gallant, Saint John coach] why he had to spend so much time talking to the Maritime referee," Veilleux said. "That's what I asked him."
Both coaches downplayed what has turned into a bitter rivalry, one that dates to Shawinigan being awarded the hosting rights for the tournament rather than Saint John. The teams split four physical regular-season games, and that level was raised even more Wednesday.
"They can do what they want," Gallant said. "They coach their team, I coach my team. Not a big deal for us. We'll play a physical game. We weren't going to get involved in much if we don't have to. But we're not going to back down from anyone."
After opening their tournament with a 5-3 loss to London on Saturday, Saint John has won two straight, beating Edmonton 5-2 on Monday and Shawinigan on Wednesday. Gallant said the upward trend in his team's play is just what he's wanted to see.
"It's gotten better every period," he said. "There's still another step for me. It sounds cocky, but I think we can still turn it up a notch. A lot of guys were good [Wednesday] and there's still a little bit more from some other guys [missing]. We're playing better as a team, that's a real key for us."
"We weren't really happy with the way we were playing the first game and first half of the second game," Saint John defenseman and Nashville Predators prospect Charles-Olivier Roussel said. "Now we're getting to be better and better and its going to be important to get even better for the next game."
Saint John is looking to become just the eighth team in the 94-year history of the Memorial Cup to win back-to-back titles. Having an extra day of rest will help, as will a repeat performance from their top players.
Huberdeau, taken by the Florida Panthers with the third pick of the 2011 Entry Draft, opened the scoring 4:39 into the game when he scored off his own rebound. Charlie Coyle sent the puck down low to Huberdeau, who was denied on his first chance but not his second, as he scored his third of the tournament.
Gallant said that fast start was what his team needed.
"I thought the first five minutes was real key for us," he said. "Huberdeau scored the first goal and made a great play on the second goal. We came out the first five minutes and that was the key for the hockey game."
"They took the play to us right off the first shift," Shawinigan's Morgan Ellis, a Montreal Canadiens draft pick, said. "Games like this we have to match it right away and that wasn't the case. They scored one, they scored another one. They buried their chances and we didn't."
"They started with a little bit more intensity than us," Veilleux added. "They led 2-0 and after that I think they shut the game down pretty well after that to protect the lead."
Penalties to Shawinigan's Ellis and Pierre-Olivier Morin gave Saint John a two-man advantage and Galiev cashed in when he scored from the high slot off a Huberdeau setup.
Tesink made it 3-0 at 16:05 of the second period, driving to the net and then knocking down a Beaulieu shot and shoving the puck past Girard.
Zlobin scored with 1:05 left in the second, shoving the rebound of an Ellis shot under Corbeil, but that was all the offense the Cataractes could manage.
Beaulieu, the Montreal Canadiens' first pick (No. 17) last June, not only helped with the offense, but made an outstanding defensive play at 12:16 of the third to help preserve the lead. Corbeil overplayed a Shawinigan player and couldn't get back into the net. Beaulieu took his spot, got down on one knee and blocked a Zlobin attempt with his upper body.
"The first game [against London] we were just playing a skilled game and we didn't work hard," Beaulieu said. "Today we worked hard and our skill took over. We were happy with the game. Not overly happy, there are still things that can be improved on. But winning a game playing just alright, we'll take that one."
Huberdeau closed the scoring with an empty-net goal, tapping in a Danick Gauthier dump-in that bounced off the end boards and into slot with 1:32 left. He now leads the tournament with four goals in three games, and is tied with Shawinigan's Michael Chaput with six points.
Shawinigan had a chance to earn the bye to the finals had they beaten Saint John, but now will need to battle from the back of the pack if they are to become the first host team to win the tournament since the Vancouver Giants in 2007 to win.
The Cataractes opened the tournament last Friday with a 4-3 loss to Edmonton, but it was their first game in more than a month.
"It's playoff time now," Shawinigan defenseman Brandon Gormley said. "Playoff time is here now. It's do-or-die now."
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