SASKATOON, Sask. — Exactly three hundred sixty-five days ago, Nathan MacKinnon sat in the stands at the Memorial Cup semifinal, so he has can make comparisons based on firsthand experience.
The last two teams standing at the end of the contrived cashcow that is the MasterCard Memorial Cup are not always necessarily the two best in the country, but MacKinnon's Halifax Mooseheads and Seth Jones' Portland Winterhawks have pushed through.
"It was pretty cool, being there last year," MacKinnon, 17, recalled Saturday. "I think it's a little different this year, because it's the top dogs, us and Portland, we've been No. 1 and 2 all year, we've switched back and forth a few times [in the Canadian Hockey League top 10 poll]. It should be a good game."
"I know he's not worried about me and him, and I'm not worried about me and him," Jones said on Friday. "Nathan's going to do what he can to win the hockey game and if that's score a hat trick, then he's going to go out and try to score a hat trick."
MacKinnon easily rhymed off the score from when the 17-year-old Sidney Crosby led the Rimouski Océanic into in the 2005 Memorial Cup final — "it was 4-0 for London" — shortly before going first overall to the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins. The 2010 final where future top pick Taylor Hall led Windsor past Brandon was also a cakewalk. However it plays out, having must-see draft prospects on each team with Jones, MacKinnon, his linemate Jonathan Drouin and goalie Zach Fucale has ratcheted up the anticipation.
"I'm the type of the guy, I'm not going to slash my buddy or chirp him, but I'm going to play hard against him and he's going to play hard against me," said MacKinnon, who is very close with Jones. "Both of us are on deep teams. It's not going to be a Nathan vs. Seth thing.
"Maybe it will be seem pretty special in a few years that we did have the same path. I'm sure we will look back on it fondly."
As you get the popcorn ready, here is what to expect on Sunday (7 p.m. ET/5 p.m. MT, Sportsnet/TVA Sports, BTN livechat).
Who bunkers down? Who opens it up? Portland's Brendan Leipsic and Nic Petan tied for the CHL scoring leader award and their 19-year-old right wing, Ty Rattie, is the most prolific playoff goal scorer in Western League history. Halifax is also a snipeshow with MacKinnon, Drouin and triggerman Martin Frk.
There few surprises that either team can spring this late in the game, though. Scoring chances could come at a premium, so one would not expect another 11-goal game.
"I'm sure they're going be a lot tighter after winning by seven goals, so we have to be prepared to win 1-0," MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon and Rattie are tied for the tourney scoring lead with eight points apiece. Rattie, who's either the Airdrie Assassin or Airdrie Artist depending on one's feelings about the militarization of the language,
"There's no such thing as a shutting down a player like that," Mooseheads co-captain Stefan Fournier. "What's really important is taking time and space away."
Who is more stress tested? The knock on Halifax is that its nucleus has no shared experienced with adversity after they lost only one playoff game. Apparently, the dawn of time occurred some time after April 17, 2012, when Drouin scored in Game 7 of overtime to cap a comeback from 3-0 series deficit vs. the Quebec Remparts.
Portland did have go through an elimination game on Friday against the London Knights. The Winterhawks are a somewhat older group and might have more hurt to convert into hunger. They have their two previous losses in the WHL final, along with having lost coach-GM to Mike Johnston to the suspension that was part of sanctions handed down by commissioner Ron Robison.
"A lot of the motivation is for Mike because he definitely brought in that winning atmosphere a couple years ago," Winterhawks faceoff specialist Taylor Peters said. But at the same time we kind of did this for ourselves as well as for Mike. We lost those last couple years in the finals and this is kind of redemption for us. We kind of choked the last couple years and now this year we’re kind fo aiming to atke it all.
"Experience pays dividends when you got into post-season hockey, especially when you have guys like Ty [Rattie] and [five-year Winterhawk] Troy [Rutkowski] that have been here the whole time," Peters added. "I think we have now after these couple years we have the top seven players in Winterhawks history in playoff games or something like that. Playoff experience goes a long way. The biggest thing about this year is our team gelled more than I’ve ever sen any other team do. We’ve just come together as a family almost and that’s really paid off."
Halifax became a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude in shorter order. They finished 15th overall or lower in the 18-team Quebec league for four seasons in a row before landing Drouin, MacKinnon and Fucale in the 2011 draft.
Carruth, Carruth, Carruth is on fire: Neither Portland overage goalie Mac Carruth nor Halifax's sophomore, Fucale, was impregnable early in the tournament. Carruth, 21, stole the show during the final act of Portland's semifinal win over London. He also has something to prove after the Mooseheads put a 7-spot on the board against him on May 18.
"He’s a big competitor and whenever he sees a team that he kind of didn’t play up to par against he’s going to come back and he’s going to compete that much harder," Peters said of his goalie.
Fucale, one of the most limber and under-control 17-year-old 'tenders you will see in Canada, was locked-in when Halifax took control of its destiny by blowing out the Knights on Tuesday.
"Things happen, you experience them and you look at them and live them again and again," Fucale told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald. "You get better at it every time. This is just the result of everything we've been through during the year."
Tell you a story about Fucale's spatial sense. On Wednesday, when the Mooseheads blew off some steam with some recreational activities, Fucale took some cracks in the batting cage despite never having played baseball. He swung and missed at every pitch. On his second round, he hit every one.
Defence still wins championships, eh? The Winterhawks, beyond Jones, have more name recognition along the backline. Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot has shown over the course of the tournament that he is more than a speedy puck-moving defenceman. Rutkowski and Calgary Flames second-rounder Tyler Wotherspoon will be playing pro next fall.
Halifax co-captain Trey Lewis is very canny at keeping the dirty areas clear. Overage Konrad Abeltshauser also has good size at 6-foot-5 while being mobile enough to fortify the forward push on power plays.
Ultimately, though, it's the first line of defence that could be critical, not the second-last or last.
"We have to kill the play before it gets in our zone, especially with that Rattie line," MacKinnon said.
Either the Q three-peats or the Dub end its drought: Has it really been five years since the Spokane Chiefs won the WHL's last Memorial Cup? That was the end of a run where the Dub won four times in eight seasons and the league still has the most wins since the tournament era began in 1972.
The QMJHL has often felt slighted in comparison to the other two leagues. Yet a Mooseheads win would mark the first time Q teams have won three consecutive tournaments.
"I'm the first one to say that I think the Q gets an unjust rap sometimes," Fournier said. "I think that in some respect that it's still looked at as a softer and not as strong hockey league. I can't see that as being the truth anymore. Maybe 20 years ago, when I wasn't born yet and we went through that 14 years of not winning, but not anymore."
That said, Halifax has to skate off the rust. Portland had its feet held to the fire after needing to surmount the London Knights' trapping tactics on Friday. There could be some carryover into championship Sunday.
"I thought after London scored, our guys got another gear to them," Winterhawks coach Travis Green said. "They got a little hungrier."
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.
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- Halifax Mooseheads
- Portland Winterhawks
- Seth Jones
- Nathan MacKinnon
- Jonathan Drouin
- Zach Fucale