SASKATOON BLADES (host)
No playoff wins, no problem for the Blades’ road to the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup. That’s the beauty about being the host team.
Saskatoon’s season has been full of highs and lows, but mostly lows. After a poor 3-7 start to the year, the Blades went on an 18-game win streak in the latter half of the season. This incredible run, however, was later deemed “a tease” by Blades fan. With them hoping to see their team go on a playoff run and make it past the second round for the first time in 18 years, Saskatoon took a face plant in the second season. The seventh-place Medicine Hat Tigers quickly swept them in the first round.
Blades fans practically parked a U-Haul on GM-head coach Lorne Molleken’s driveway. But team owner Jack Brodsky didn’t make a radical move after the playoffs. He stuck by his architect through a very rough patch in his franchise’s history.
Saskatoon can’t be written off in the Memorial Cup, though. They not only have had more time to rest and regroup for the tournament than their opponents, but they also will have the crowd behind them. The stats show these two factors can be huge beneficiaries as 70 per cent of the host teams have made it to the final.
Their season so far, expressed through the majesty of '80s rock anthems
Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, "The Waiting." The Blades have not played a game since March, so their fans have to take it on faith that they will be competitive in the tournament.
Don't get bitter, Blades fans. It was either the above or Bon Jovi's "Livin' On A Prayer."
That fierce urgency of now thing
- The Blades got a 51-day break from their last playoff game until the Memorial Cup. In some ways, their break worked to their benefit. It gave them time to focus on their game plan for the tournament and heal any bumps and bruises. In other ways, however, it seems it could have worked against them. Since they haven’t played a meaningful game in over a month, it’s possible the Blades aren’t in game shape anymore. It might also be tough for them to get into a do-or-die mindset.
This is the last kick at the can for this group of players. None of their five leading scorers should be returning next year. In addition, six of their seven blueliners and No. 1 puck-stopper Andrey Makarov are 19-year-olds. This should help give these veterans extra motivation to end their major junior careers on a bright note.
Up front —
Saskatoon doesn’t have “thee guy” that they count on to score them clutch goals. Throughout the year, New York Rangers prospects Josh Nicholls and Shane McColgan, Dallas Stars prospect Matej Stransky, and team captain Brenden Walker carried the offense. At the trade deadline, they added to that offensive core by acquiring Calgary Flames prospect Michael Ferland, who scored 31 points in 30 games, from the Brandon Wheat Kings. Winnipeg Jets second-round pick Lukas Sutter was expected to be one of their top scorers after his 28-goal, 59-point season last year, but he had an off year to say the least, only mustering 11 goals and 24 points in 72 games.
In the post-season, Saskatoon’s big guns didn’t show up. Nicholls, McColgan, Stranksy, Walker, and Ferland only combined for two apples. This is obviously a major concern heading to the Memorial Cup. If they play as they did against the Tigers, the scores could get ugly.
On the blueline - The Blades’ back end disappointed in more ways than one this year. Of their big three – Colorado Avalanche first-rounder Duncan Siemens, Montreal Canadiens second-rounder Dalton Thrower, and Canadiens fifth-rounder Darren Dietz – only Dietz lived up to expectations, playing a positional sound game while racking up 24 goals and 58 points in 72 games. Siemens and Thrower, meanwhile, took their fair share of dumb penalties and didn’t contribute enough on the score sheet.
The Blades are desperately counting on Siemens and Thrower to pull up their socks for the Memorial Cup. They need Siemens to keep things simple and play physical while keeping the slashes and illegal checks to a minimum. Thrower, meanwhile, needs to tap into the offensive talent that he showcased in 2011-12 when he racked up 18 goals and 54 points in 66 games.
In goal - Andrey Makarov is a wildcard in between the pipes. There is no denying he can singlehandedly win a game. He proved that on numerous occasions for Russia at the world juniors and in the Credit Union Centre for the Blades. But the 6-foot-1, 193-pounder has struggled with consistency. After posting his best month stats wise in February with a 1.72 average and a .948 save percentage in 15 games, he followed it up with a 4.45 average and a .877 save percentage in seven contests throughout March. The reason for this particular off month could have been he was simply worn out from carrying the Blades to an 18-game win streak. The incident, however, is far from isolated. In November, the Buffalo Sabres prospect let in four goals on 10 shots against the Kelowna Rockets following stopping 41 of 43 shots against the Kamloops Blazers; there are several other instances throughout the year similar to this. Not to mention, the 20-year-old has a 0-8 record in the WHL playoffs.
For the Blades to have a shot at making some noise in the tournament, Makarov has to be their best player. When he’s at the top of his game, so are the Blades as a whole. Moreover, when he’s down in the dumps, his teammates follow suit.
Outlook – Molleken’s Blades haven’t shown up at crunch time in recent years, so it would be shocking to see Saskatoon pull off the upset of all upsets on the big stage. But this is the Memorial Cup, anything is possible.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen