The improbable playoff run might be all over but the crying, however the Charlottetown Islanders weren’t shedding tears at the team’s season wrap party Thursday in Charlottetown.
In fact, the mood was downright buoyant in the Eastlink Centre. Dozens of fans and well-wishers lined up for autographs, took pictures with smiling players and talked to those upstarts who took the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s best team to seven games in the semifinals.
Charlottetown bottled up Blainville-Boisbriand for six games, won three of those in overtime and only faltered in Game 7 as the Armada broke out with a four-goal second period en route to a 6-1 victory and a berth in the President’s Cup final against the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
And Pascal Aquin, who graduates from the Isles program, beamed with what this team accomplished as it played a franchise record 18 playoff games.
“I couldn’t ask for more. It smarts to lose in Game 7 in Blainville, but we left it all out there. It was amazing,” Aquin said.
The 20-year-old Le Gardeur, Que., native, finished with six goals and 14 points in the post-season and keyed Charlottetown’s seven-game series win over Quebec in the first round as he labelled Remparts goaltending with four goals in the series clincher.
As a barometer for the post-season, Aquin pointed to a late-season game where Charlottetown notched a 5-4 comeback victory in overtime against Acadie-Bathurst after being down 4-0 going into the first intermission.
“I knew then we could be a team that could go far. We were just the team with the bigger heart. Everybody knew their role. With (head coach) Jim’s (Hulton) system we were a hard team to play against,” said Aquin. “It was the best year I had, so much fun with all the guys together, I couldn’t ask for more. I’m really going to miss this place.”
With Aquin leaving, part of the that veteran leadership gets plopped onto goalie Matthew Welsh’s shoulders next season.
He’s 19 next year and wracked up a remarkable regular and post-season where game after game he kept the squad in the running and was often rewarded with a win.
So the Halifax, N.S., native, won’t forget those lessons.
“This year is something as a group we can learn from, the younger guys learning from the older guys… and be stronger next year,” said Welsh, who leads all goaltenders in the playoffs in minutes with 1,093:13.
Charlottetown didn’t look like a strong team early in the regular season when it hobbled to a 1-6-1 start thanks to an anemic offence.
But Hulton’s voracious forechecking game took root and the team rolled off six straight wins in October which propelled its climb up from the bottom of the standings to a solid middle-of-the-pack finish.
That style served the Isles well in the post-season, too, as did naysayers predicting the team wouldn’t make the playoffs or go far if they got there.
“We had the attitude of us against the world. It fuelled our fire. If they booed us when we got on the ice, we used it to our advantage. There was a lot of disbelievers, a lot of haters,” Welsh said. “We were the kind of team that played playoff hockey. I wasn’t surprised at our success. It’s one of those things, nice to be there and take it all in. Just to be there and go through it all is something I’ll never forget.”
Further along the transition line is Nikita Alexandrov. The rookie came of age in the post-season finishing with seven goals and as the Isles leading scorer (17 points), that after a 13-goal, 31-point regular season.
Alexandrov, who’s from Burgwedel, Germany, netted his biggest marker in Game 6. It came with just over two minutes left, tied things 2-2 and sent it overtime where Cameron Askew won it six minutes in and forced Game 7.
He also developed a nice chemistry with fellow rookie Brett Budgell and 18-year-old Derek Gentile, both of which return next season.
Alexandrov also flags the overtime win against the Titan as a rallying point and smiles at what an Islanders-Titan league final might look like given the Isles winning record against Acadie-Bathurst in the regular season.
“About two weeks before the playoffs I thought we could play against the better teams. (Against Acadie-Bathurst) we knew they were going to be the second seed in the playoffs and we had two good games against them before Christmas,” Alexandrov said. “I was really excited to play against them. It was really, really close. It’s kind of sad, but I’m still proud of the team.”
Cameron Askew and Olivier Desjardins graduate from junior along with Aquin. Desjardins signed on the with the University of Moncton next season, while Aquin and Askew haven’t made any plans for next season yet.