Roberts 'Piques up team spirit

BARRE CAMPBELL -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

The next time you see Gatineau Olympiques captain Sam Roberts, chances are he'll be smiling. Perhaps it's part of his happy-go-lucky Newfoundlander demeanour.

Answering questions last week following a practice at the Robert Guertin Centre, Roberts kept on beaming through an interview about the recent rough patch his team has endured.

"Anybody who sees me play for the first time says that if the other team scores, I've got a smile on my face, or if I get punched in the face, I've got a smile on," said the native of St. John's.

"It's not something that I'm conscious about. It just sort of happens. So I guess I'm just enjoying myself."

He's also a funny guy. Asked how a Newfoundlander could be chosen captain of a Quebec league team, he provided this response: "We have enough trouble speaking English in Newfoundland, and then they stick me in with a French team. That's fine. Everybody up here is bilingual."

As much as Roberts tries to keep some levity in the locker room, the Olympiques don't see their recent slump as a laughing matter.

They had a blazing start to the year, winning seven of their first 10 games, but went 4-6-0 in January, a substandard month by Olympiques' standards, even for a young team rebuilding following back-to-back championships.

Gatineau started this month with a case of the February blahs. On Friday, they dropped their third straight game, a 3-0 decision to the Huskies in Rouyn-Noranda.

They're heading into the final two months of the schedule with a record hovering just above .500, six points behind first-place Shawinigan.

Finishing first would be important because the divisional winner gets one of the top three seeds in the QMJHL playoffs.

THREE-PEAT ALIVE?

But completing the year anywhere but atop the West standings would likely place the 'Piques somewhere in the middle of the playoff rankings, making the possibility of a three-peat all the more difficult.

As tempting as focusing on the divisional standings and finishing first might be, the 'Piques say their attention needs to be trained on what they're doing right ... and on the things in which they need to improve.

"As far as first place goes, we couldn't care less about it," Roberts said. "It's just another distraction."

The coaching staff has been trying to make sure that message is getting through to everybody.

"We've got a young team this year, and our main goal right now is just to prepare as best we can for the end of the season," said winger Olivier Labelle.

"We've got a lot of aspects of our game that are not very good yet," he said. "We've got to work on them a lot and improve as a team."

Benoit Groulx, in his third full season as coach of the 'Piques, remembers how his team went through a similar rough patch two seasons ago in January and February before rallying in the playoffs to win the league title and a trip to the Memorial Cup.

"Two years ago, during the same period of time, we were playing exactly the same way. Our team position was bad, very bad," said Groulx. "But we adjusted and we had success after."

The coach likes the attitude on this year's team, and is most impressed with the way the players have shown no signs of panic.

"I think they believe in themselves and they know they have a good team," said Groulx. "They know they've (done) it before. For me, it's a matter of time. I'm not worried at all about our game plan or our position on the ice."

As observers of junior hockey have come to expect over the last decade, the Olympiques can be a dangerous bunch if they get some momentum heading into the playoffs.

"People know our tradition and they know what we've done in the past," said Labelle. "We've got to take that to our advantage and work with that and try to do what we can."


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