Mario Pouliot didn’t want to rush into anything when he took over in Rouyn-Noranda this year.
The veteran head coach was coming off a season for the ages in Acadie-Bathurst, where he led the Titan to their first-ever Memorial Cup title.
Pouliot needed to get to know the Huskies players and staff before picking a firm direction. But despite his sensibly cautious intentions, it turned out the new head coach and general manager really didn’t need long to size up what he had in his new location.
“At the start I knew we had good potential but I needed time to evaluate what were going to be our strengths and what things we needed to improve,” Pouliot said. “I needed to know if we could play the way I wanted us to play. But also, when I looked at our roster, I knew 20 of our 23 players were from our drafts or the free agent side so all those kids grew up together and already knew the team identity. They knew what it was to represent the Huskies in this town and what it means to play Huskies hockey.
“We also knew we had good depth everywhere in the lineup. We had two good goalies, we had an experienced D corps and a lot of good forwards. So, for us, what I realized early in the season was that it was a special group with special team chemistry and a really good work ethic. We could start there and then develop our style of play. I was really happy with our progression the rest of the year.”
Pouliot’s early evaluation proved to be bang-on. The Huskies took off right away and never slowed down. They went on to set a new QMJHL record with 59 regular season wins, highlighted by a 25-game winning streak down the stretch that tied a 45-year-old league mark.
You could almost go so far as to say there was no adversity along the way for the Huskies, who will join the host Halifax Mooseheads as a Quebec league representative at this year’s Memorial Cup Presented by Kia. In some ways, the biggest challenge was not to mess it up.
Pouliot kept that at the front of his mind heading into the mid-season trade period when he was careful not to upset the balance in his dressing room by loading up with the wrong players.
“At Christmas when we met with our management group, we told them what kind of players we had and gave them a strong message,” he said. “We told them how serious all of the players were about winning so it was easy to make the decision to improve our team. Our first target was Noah (Dobson) because we were looking to improve our D corps and the fact I knew him so well from Bathurst helped a lot. With his experience, we knew he was the player we wanted on the back end so that’s why we worked so hard to get him.
“After that we went after (forward Louis-Filip) Côté. We drafted him three years ago and then he was traded to Quebec, but we knew he was a player we liked. He’s a two-way forward who’s reliable defensively and brings us speed and size. He’s a pure Huskie so it was natural to think about him because he already knew a lot of the veterans here. For him and for us, when we talked about trades it was important for us never to affect our team chemistry so I knew what I was getting with Dobson and it’s the same thing with ) Côté.
“Even with (forward Joël) Teasdale, he’s a guy that I coached against last year in the final and he had 51 games of playoff experience. I knew a lot about him already and knew about him from Joel (Bouchard), who coached him in Blainville-Boisbriand. He’s the type of player who’s built perfectly for the playoffs. He’s strong along the boards, he’s good at protecting the puck, he’s good in front of the net on the power play and he can play in all situations. We didn’t want to make too many moves, we just wanted to make the right moves. Those were our three targets and we got lucky that everything fell into place at the trade deadline.”
In the end, it is obvious Pouliot hit all the right notes with his acquisitions. Dobson reminded everyone why he was already widely regarded as the best defenceman in the league, while ) Côté and Teasdale played the best hockey of their junior careers.
It also helped that fourth-year forward Peter Abbandonato broke out to win the Q scoring title with 111 points in 68 games and five others averaged more than a point per game – ) Côté, Teasdale, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Félix Bibeau and Alex Beaucage. Defenceman Justin Bergeron also improved his point total from 30 in 2017-18 to 57 this season and the rest of the defence group put up gaudy plus-minus numbers, like Samuel Régis (plus-56) and Jacob Neveu (plus-50).
Backstopping it all was veteran all-star netminder Samuel Harvey. He led all Q starters with a 2.08 GAA and .926 SV%, while backup Zachary Emond was even better statistically in a smaller sample size at 1.73 and .932. The Huskies averaged exactly two goals against for the season, finishing comfortably in first place in the league in that category.
With that much excellence across the board in his lineup, another priority for Pouliot was not to let any of it go to his players’ heads.
“For us here, one thing we want to do is get better every day so we were always just focusing on improving our collective game,” he said. “We knew it was important for us to stay grounded and the thing is, we are the kind of team that competes with a strong work ethic. We were more focused on the process than the results so the players did well working that way.
“But I also think that after the winning streak ended, the last three games of the regular season were a little tough and at the start of the playoffs we had to figure out that the regular season is one thing but the playoffs is another. I think our series against Shawinigan (4-2 win) made us better and made us realize the playoffs is a different scenario. Since then what I like is we have improved the way we play playoff hockey. We had a few things to improve but for sure we learned from that first series.”
Which brings it all back to Pouliot and his experienced guiding hand. By running the table all the way to the Memorial Cup title in 2018 with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, he knew what buttons to push and when.
“After last year I new exactly what would happen at every step,” said Pouliot, who swept the 2019 QMJHL awards for coach and GM of the year. “If you look at our playoff run last year with the Titan, it went pretty much the same way. We had a tough time in the first round against Chicoutimi, then after that it was two 4-0 series and then a challenge in the final. The most important thing is staying focused on yourself and making sure you are playing your style. Our team here is doing that the same way we did last year in Bathurst.”