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Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, Gatineau Olympiques clash in QMJHL championship series

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They'll be hanging from the rafters at tiny David Keon Arena in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., on Friday when the Huskies open the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship series against the visiting Gatineau Olympiques.

The Huskies have never won a QMJHL title in franchise history and the franchise goes all the way back to 1972 when they were the Montreal Bleu-Blanc-Rouge.

The Huskies are understandably the buzz in a city with a population of 45,000, so Friday's Game 1 in the 2,200 arena will resemble a Volkswagen-stuffing contest.

"In seven minutes, all the tickets were sold out," head coach and general manager Andre Tourigny said Thursday from Rouyn-Noranda.

"Everywhere the players or the coaches go, people talk about the series and congratulate the players for the run they've had. At the same time, we try and keep our players away from that because we want our players to stay focused."

The winner represents the QMJHL at the Memorial Cup in Kitchener, Ont., from May 16 to 25.

The Kitchener Rangers lead the Belleville Bulls 1-0 in the OHL final and both clubs are bound for the Memorial Cup as host and OHL runner-up respectively.

The Western Hockey League championship series opens Friday with the Spokane Chiefs hosting the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

The Huskies won the QMJHL's regular-season title with 47-20-2-1, while Gatineau was four points behind in third at 43-19-6-2.

Rouyn-Noranda took the quickest route possible to the final with four-games sweeps of Val-d'Or, Rimouski and Saint John.

The Olympiques took slightly longer with five-games series against Shawnigan and Quebec before sweeping Halifax.

Gatineau is one of those model franchises that finish above .500 and make the playoffs annually even in the cyclical world of junior hockey in which teams build to peak in Year 3 and then start all over again.

The Olympiques won back-to-back QMJHL titles in 2003 and 2004 and reached the Memorial Cup final both times under head coach Benoit Groulx, who has won 14 of 18 playoff rounds in his six seasons at the helm.

"He's the best coach in our league and one of my best friends in the league," Tourigny said. "I know he will be a big factor in the series, but in the meantime this is the fourth time I've coached him in the playoffs and I know how he'll react and what he can do.

"I'll try to do my job and not focus too much on him. I think I can do my job."

Rouyn-Noranda is 3-5 versus Gatineau during the regular season, but won their last two meetings 6-5 and 7-4.

They chased Olympiques goaltender Ryan Mior from the net after two periods of their last game on March 14.

"We know what happened during the regular season is not a reflection of what will happen in this series," Tourigny said.

"Everything is about the first period of the first game. After the first period, if we get the momentum and we're able to take the lead in that game, we'll take a big lead in that series, but if they get momentum we'll have to stay focused and not panic and stay on the job."

He calls Gatineau's top line of Claude Giroux, Paul Byron and Matthew Pistilli the best in the league.

"We have to keep them away from our net and stay away from the box," he said.

The Huskies generate a lot of their offence from the back end with Marc-Andre Bourdon, Ivan Vishnevskiy and Sebastien Piche among the highest scoring defencemen in the league.

"That makes a difference because we can attack from everywhere," Tourigny said. "That's important because we didn't have guys who finished at the top of the scoring race."

After striking out with a couple of 20-year-old goaltenders to start the season, the Huskies gave up a first-round draft pick to get Maxim Gougeon from Drummondville at the trade deadline.

He's carrying a 2.21 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in a dozen playoff games.

Mior, from St. John's, N.L., set QMJHL records this season in career games played (239 ) and career shutouts with 15. He got six of those shutouts this season.

Mior has maintained a 2.35 goals-against-average and .908 save percentage in 14 post-season games.

While the pressure is on the Huskies as the regular-season champions, Tourigny says his team can handle it.

"For sure people expect a lot," he said. "We're used to playing with that and we're happy about that because we want people to believe in us and the people do."

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