SASKATOON, Sask. — What Nathan MacKinnon and the Halifax Mooseheads did Saturday seemed pretty big, although it might not look so big to them tomorrow.
MacKinnon had the hat trick plus an apple and the Mooseheads became the first team all season to roll a seven vs. Seth Jones and the Portland Winterhawks, prevailing 7-4 in both league champions' MasterCard Memorial Cup opener. MacKinnon kept the debate over who is the most likely future NHL superstar in clover with a first-star effort. However, it's only the second night of a 10-day tournament, plus Portland accumulated an 11-4 edge in even-strength scoring chances and 18-12 overall. The sharpness of Halifax's power play and shakiness of Winterhawks overage goalie Mac Carruth forestall labelling it a statement win. One can still go so far to say the Mooseheads indicated they didn't grow large by devouring Baie-Comeau bonbons and Rouyn-Noranda raisinettes, as some from the west have intimated about the QMJHL's representative.
"We definitely earned a little more respect I think," MacKinnon said. "Obviously coming from the Q, sometimes we get looked down upon a bit. I think we definitely had a good game and sent a message."
"We got a lot more comfortable," the 17-year-old said of the sea change from the first period to the second. "This is a big stage and there were some butterflies to chase away after the first period. If we face them again we're going to have to be a lot sharper."
It was hardly a perfect Mooseheads performance. Halifax coach Dominque Ducharme said his players were well-aware they had more puck luck.
"I don't have much worries about that, we've been doing that all year," he said. "Even after the game tonight, nobody was overexcited, everybody was happy with the win. We've been working and having that philosophy that it is one day at time since Day 1 in August. We're confident our guys can be better tomorrow."
And oh yes, Nate 1, Seth 0.
"He's a great offensive player, very dynamic," said Jones, who scored the first Winterhawks goal. "He's got great foot speed. You saw on his second goal coming down against me — a quick inside outside move — it's tough to contain."
"I think we gave them opportunities that we shouldn't have and they capitalized."
Halifax (1-0) faces host Saskatoon (0-1) on Sunday (7 p.m. ET/5 p.m. MT, Sportsnet/TVA Sports, BTN livechat). Portland (0-1) faces London on Monday. On with the post-game questions:
What caused the Winterhawks to unravel? The Winterhawks briefly had a two-goal lead after Troy Rutkowski and Ty Rattie scored 82 seconds apart in the first three minutes of the second period. Then it turned into a Very Special Episode of The Nate and Jo Show entitled "Saskatoon Surprise," with MacKinnon (3G-1A, +1) and Jonathan Drouin (1G, +1) doing all of their damage before the end of the fame.
"I thought we played real well about 25-27 minutes and the game got away from us for about 10 minutes," Winterhawks coach Travis Green said. "The momentum went to their side and they got rolling. A couple lucky bounces ended up in the back of our net.
"I thought our D-zone coverage wasn't great, we had some wingers down low and we mismanaged the puck and they got point shots, clear shots, with guys behind our defence," Green added.
"Give them credit. They pushed back."
Normally a two-goal lead is money in the bank for the Winterhawks. Halifax was able to control the neutral zone somewhat better in the second, but it four consecutive Winterhawks penalties tilted the ice significantly.
"We had a great backcheck in the first and in the second we got away from it," Rutkowski said. "You can't give those guys time and space. You give them an inch, they'll take a mile."
What lessons did Halifax take out of the game, notwithstanding that it won? The Mooseheads, for that portion of the game Green alluded to, were a little taken aback by Portland's pace. Both Rattie and Oliver Bjorkstrand hit posts over that stretch; an inch the other way and the Winterhawks might have wrested control. Ultimately, Halifax ratcheted it up to that level, realizing that while they have some credible competition back east, this is still a cut higher.
"We were not skating as well we were able to skate," Ducharme said of the first. "We were not applying pressure. We were watching. We were not as active as we want to be. When we started doing this, we started performing better. We were doing a lot of puck watching, leaving a lot of space for them to attack our zone."
MacKinnon admitted he also took a while to realize what he was up against.
"I thought I had a pretty slow first period," the centre added "Marty [Frk] managed to get on the board and that kind of set the tone for us. The next 40 minutes I thought we controlled most of the play. Portland, they're a dangerous team."
The Mooseheads were 2-for-6 on the power play to Portland's 2-for-8. MacKinnon also got a short-handed goal.
"We don't want to rely on our special teams too much, we want to be good 5-on-5," he said.
Mac Carruth (seven goals against on 35 shots) struggled in the Winterhawks net. Did Green give any thought to giving him a breather? In a word from the coach, "No." There was no follow-up.
Portland has been fiercely loyal to Carruth, who was not made available to the media following the game. The overage goalie was off on a couple goals, leaving room for MacKinnon to score short side on Halifax's 5-3 goal and getting beaten from behind the net on the sixth Mooseheads marker.
"We're not worried about him," Rattie said. "He's a world class goalie and he's going to bounce back with a huge game. You guys wait and see."
Halifax's Zach Fucale made 37 saves, including a glove stop on Adam de Champlain in the first period that kept Halifax even at 1-1 through 20 minutes.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.