MONTREAL, QC — Yes, we’re aware that there is quite a bit of hockey presently taking place. Too much, even. Still, for those unable to garner up the capacity to cheer on a team other than Les Glorieux in this year’s edition of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, here’s nine days’ worth of distraction. (And if it’s anything close to last year’s edition, it’s nothing to yawn at.)
The 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament gets underway this Friday at 8:00 p.m. Eastern as the Ontario Hockey League Champion London Knights take on the host Saskatoon Blades at the Credit Union Centre. For lowdown on the tournament’s four participants, keep reading!
The hosts of the tournament: the Saskatoon Blades
They were the subjects of all sorts of taunting and chirping when they exited the WHL playoffs almost as quickly as they entered it. After being swept (yes, swept) in the first round, they were left with a seemingly never-ending two months to stomach that embarrassment. While they can console themselves with the fact that last year’s champions, the Shawinigan Cataractes, endured almost the same amount of time off and managed to prevail in the end, they will have a lot of make-up work to do if they want to silence their critics and even take home the big prize.
Saskatoon does have two persons of interest for Habs’ fans among their ranks: Darren Dietz and Dalton Thrower. Dietz recorded personal bests offensively this season, finishing third in the Western Hockey League among rearguard point-getters with 58 points in 72 games, including a league-leading 24 goals by a defenseman. Thrower, for his part, recorded six goals and 21 assists in 54 games.
Blades’ goaltender Andrey Makarov was passed over two years ago in the special Lewiston MAINEiacs dissolution draft and has since made those 17 QMJHL teams regret it. In addition to beating Team Canada for the bronze medal at the most recent installment of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, his 37 wins were tied for first in the WHL this season.
The Blades really just need to get their groove back. If they tap into their offensive prowess, which they were known to do during the regular season (they were originally seeded second while scoring the most goals in the Eastern Conference), they can put their earlier postseason fiasco behind them.
Western Hockey League representatives: the Portland Winterhawks
Speaking of offense, Portland has quite a bit of it themselves. The Winterhawks scored 334 goals in the regular season, plus 82 more in the playoffs. Their top line of Ty Rattie, Nicholas Petan and Brendan Leipsic is primarily responsible for that, combining for 438 points across 2012-13 and rooting themselves into the top three slots on the league leaderboard.
Defensively, who can forget Seth Jones? Scouts and draftmongers alike are drooling at this year’s tournament for all its draft-eligible prospects, and Jones is an obvious factor in that respect. That said, the entire Portland blueline was one of the stingiest in the league, as only 169 goals were given up this season on their end.
Portland had a relatively un-complicated journey towards the Ed Chenoweth Cup, after having had their hearts broken last year at the hands of the Edmonton Oil Kings in a series that went the distance. This year, they defeated those same Oil Kings in six games and overage goaltender Mac Carruth, who has been a Winterhawk for four long seasons, was able conclude his junior career in victorious fashion. He is the goaltender that has participated in the most playoff games in the WHL…ever.
The obvious key here for Portland’s opponents is shutting down that top line. But I’m willing to bet it doesn’t get much easier from there…
Ontario Hockey League representatives: the London Knights
If you’re not sick of these guys yet, by next year, you will be. In addition to beating the Barrie Colts for the Robertson Cup with just a tenth of a second remaining in regulation… in a game seven situation (just minutes before the Epic Leafs Meltdown of 2013, which is enough to amaze and baffle any ambivalent hockey fan watching both games almost as much as anyone pulling for the teams involved), they beat out those very Colts for the rights to host the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament the following morning.
London were also the finalists in the 2012 tournament, as the Jarred Tinordi Edition Knights fell to the Shawinigan Cataractes (led by one Michaël Bournival) in overtime. So that’s three straight years we’ll see the Knights at this thing. Say what now?
The natural conclusion to pull from the last two years: their talent is unmistakable. The majority of their roster is either draft-eligible or fresh off the drafting board: Game seven hero Bo Horvat, Max Domi, Olli Maatta, Ryan Rupert, Seth Griffith and others represent a young but also experienced core that is…a little scary when considering the fact that they could return next year. At the same time, there is also established leadership. Scott Harrington was part of Canada’s National Junior team not once, but twice. Add to that the bonus that a lot of the aforementioned bunch of youngsters do still have the experience of last year under their belts. Hmmm.
The Knights are a well-rounded bunch whose only grey area seems to be goaltending. Both their netminders are eighteen years of age and posted similar statistics throughout the year, but it was Jake Patterson that bailed his team out in the end (did I forget to mention they were down three games to one in that series against Barrie? Whoops).
All in all, the annoying comeback kids do have their stake in this thing just as much as anyone else.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League representatives: the Halifax Mooseheads
The QMJHL playoffs were hilarious. I’m allowed to say that. I tracked them even if my team was stomped out in the first round. Between bickering coaches, one-word answer press conferences, bench-clearing brawls and suspensions carrying fines racking up to more than an average yearly income, the finals were held between The Team Nathan MacKinnon Rejected and The Team Nathan MacKinnon Chose. I’d say they fought to the death, but the only thing I can say is that the Baie-Comeau Drakkar did serve the Halifax Mooseheads their only loss of the playoffs. Not quite redemption, but close enough.
Close enough because every rink the Mooseheads visited this season seemed to be tilted at a downwards angle (the top being where goaltender Zachary Fucale was, and from there on it was just a never-ending sea of red and green and no way up). Halifax was the top team in the Canadian Hockey League this season and scored just under 350 goals in the regular season, only to pile 90 more onto that total during the playoffs. MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Martin Frk, Konrad Abeltshauser and Stefan Fournier were among the most frequent names to appear on league scoresheets. Last season, these same players were snapping at the heels of the downward-falling Saint John Sea Dogs, but easily took over the throne a year later.
Fucale is the tournament’s youngest goaltender. He, like MacKinnon and Drouin, figures to be among the top prospects bound for New Jersey in late June for the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He bears the number of a certain Habs’ netminder, playing quite like the junior version of him, poised and calm. And he has been featured in 34 playoff games already, despite being only 17. Speaking of scary-good…
With the little amount of opposition they encountered on the way to the President’s Cup (and even before that), it’s difficult to predict how well the Halifax Mooseheads will stand up in the face of adversity. At the risk of sounding like a certain departed Voltigeurs’, Bulldogs’ and Lightning coach, their true test lies in the struggle (damn, he’s way better at this than I am) and what they will do to avoid the fate of their predecessors, the Sea Dogs, the surprise exit of the 2012 edition.