For the most part, Justin Pender, Graham Bona, Gabriel O’Connor and Ben MacAskill have flown under the radar through two rounds of the Halifax Mooseheads’ playoff run.
If the quartet keeps it that way, the Mooseheads will be in a good position to win their first President’s Cup.
The “bottom four” of the Mooseheads’ defence corps typically makes the most impact when it isn’t getting noticed. It means the blue-liners aren’t turning the puck over, getting beat one-on-one or scrambling around in their own zone.
In other words, they’re doing their job, a job they took a lot of heat for not doing during the regular season.
“We’ve stepped it up a notch in the playoffs,” the 17-year-old O’Connor said. “We don’t concern ourselves with what people are saying — it can throw you off your game. But for me and all the other defencemen, we’ve focused every playoff game and we’re getting more confident the further we go.”
Through 11 playoff contests, the defencemen have combined for a respectable plus-22 rating and 47 hits. On top of that, they’ve contributed four goals and 10 assists, led by a surprising three goals and three assists from Pender.
O’Connor and Bona form a conservative unit, while Pender and MacAskill are paired on the other. Guillaume Monast and Andrew Bodnarchuk log big minutes as the top unit.
A turning point for the foursome came on Feb. 17 when Mooseheads management kicked 19-year-old defenceman Nicholas Goyens off the team for disciplinary reasons. Goyens was a staple in the lineup, meaning Pender, Bona, O’Connor and MacAskill took turns as healthy scratches.
“He was a good player, but when he left, I had to take advantage of it,” O’Connor said. “Of course it helped. You’re not worrying whether you’ll be sitting in the stands, and it gave me more momentum and helped me improve.”
One key to success has been keeping things simple.
“I’m trying to do the easiest play every time, nothing complicated that might put my team in danger,” O’Connor said.
The stakes will be much higher when Halifax opens the semifinals at home on Saturday against the Gatineau Olympiques. Claude Giroux powers Gatineau’s dangerous, offence, and leads playoff scorers with 28 points in 10 games.
The Mooseheads are planning a physical approach.
“If we start hitting early, it will put the confidence and momentum on our side,” O’Connor said. “We’ve got the confidence, we’ve got the size, and I’m sure it’s going to help us.”