SASKATOON, Sask. — Weeks of practice and preparation will be tested when the MasterCard Memorial Cup host Saskatoon Blades meet the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights.
The Blades will play their first meaningful game in nearly two months following their opening round sweep at the hands of the Medicine Hat Tigers. Since then, the Blades have been building for this moment and they’re ready to seize the chance at redemption.
“Our hockey club did some real good things this year and those are the things we want to build off of heading into this tournament,” Blades head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken said. “I’m really anxious to see how we respond. If we maintain the work ethic that we’ve had over this break, I’m confident we can get right back into it.”
The Knights are making their second-straight appearance in the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Last year, they got a bye to the final, but lost in overtime in the championship game against the host Shawinigan Cataractes.
Those sentiments and memories linger for the returning players, who are using it as motivation.
“As long as I live, I’ll never forget losing in overtime,” Knights captain Scott Harrington said. “We learned a lot and I think that really helped us all season.”
CAN THE BLADES HARNESS THE CROWD’S ENERGY TO THEIR ADVANTAGE?
Blades defenceman Duncan Siemens described himself and his teammates as being “very pent up” on Thursday. They’ve been biding their time for this moment for the better part of two months and Molleken isn’t about to hold anything back now.
“We’re going to let them go,” Molleken said. “They know they have to control their emotion, but as far as energy, we want all the energy that we can get. I think that was a big part of what happened in Shawinigan last year. Their fans got behind them and created that type of energy. We’re hoping to feed off of that.”
“You can really pick up some momentum from hearing their roars as you come out of the gate or every time a big hit or goal scored, hearing them in the game can be a huge difference,” Siemens added. “It can give you that little burst of adrenaline that you need to catch that guy or bear down and make a crucial play. The crowd can definitely play a huge role for us.”
WHICH TEAM CAN START QUICKEST?
The Knights last played Monday when they won the J. Ross Robertson Cup with less than a second remaining in regulation. The following morning, they found out they would host next year’s tournament. They’re riding a high wave of emotion right now and have proven to be a quick starter in the playoffs.
“They’ll come out hard so we have to make sure we’re ready for that and at the same time, we take it to them even harder,” Harrington said. “You always want to quiet the other team’s building… No matter what game it is, you want to get the first goal.”
The Blades won’t have much time to find their game legs after practising against each other and playing exhibitions against pro and university players.
“We just have to get everybody involved right away,” Siemens explained. “We have to be ready to go before the puck drops and we have to get up to the level that they’ve been playing at right away. Our start is really important.”
WILL THIRD PERIODS CONTINUE TO HAUNT THE KNIGHTS?
A chink in the Knights’ armour emerged through their playoff run. Both the Plymouth Whalers and Barrie Colts rose from the ashes and stole momentum in the final frame in several games. Not each comeback resulted in a win for those teams, but it was happening with enough frequency that it should be a concern for the Knights.
“Just keep the foot on the gas pedal,” described forward Max Domi. “If you watch those games we’re pretty much in control the first two periods and we let off a little bit and those teams obviously smell (blood in the water) and they jump all over it.”
This could work in the Blades’ favour. The Blades are mindful of the Knights’ third period downfalls while believing they play their best in the final frame.
“That’s something we can really take advantage of,” Blades forward Lukas Sutter said. “We can’t come out flat — they’re too good of a team to spot them a goal or two. If we weather the storm early and we build to the third period, we’re going to be successful.”
“Over the year, the one consistent thing about our games is we’ve really picked up pace and play in the third periods,” Blades forward Josh Nicholls added. “We should have that endurance to keep pushing the pace in the third and hopefully we can use that to our advantage.”
CAN THE BLADES FORGET THE PAST?
Much has been said of this year’s host team, and they’re very much aware of their playoff performance’s perception. The slate is wiped clean now, but whether they can focus on the present and ignore the past remains to be seen.
“There’s obviously going to be a lot of doubters,” Sutter said. “It’s going to be up to us to prove them wrong.”
“The game is played on the ice,” Molleken concluded. “We feel we’re prepared for this in all facets so our guys know that execution will be a big, big part of it and we’re going to need all 20 guys that are dressed in each particular game to rise to the occasion.”