SASKATOON — Nathan MacKinnon says he may never score a bigger goal.
Bold words for a player with a bright NHL future, but fans of the Halifax Mooseheads would probably agree.
MacKinnon had a hat trick, including a title-clinching goal into an empty net, and Jonathan Drouin had a sublime five-assist performance as Halifax held off a late Portland rally to defeat the Winterhawks 6-4 in the final of the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Leading 5-2 with under six minutes to go, the Mooseheads watched as Portland cut it to 5-4 with 1:14 left.
That’s when MacKinnon, a 17-year-old with maturity beyond his years, scored into an empty net to send Halifax to its first Canadian Hockey League title.
"I might not score a bigger goal in my life," said MacKinnon, who added two assists and was named tournament’s most valuable player after scoring a tournament-best seven goals and six assists in four games. "It’s just … 22 seconds left. We won it. We’re champions.
"The empty netter will be in my mind forever."
After the game, players mingled with family on the ice as a small but vocal group of travelling Mooseheads fans chanted, cheered and banged on the glass in the near-empty Credit Union Centre.
"It’s unbelievable. I grew up in Halifax. I’ve watched this team go through hard times and good times," MacKinnon added. "After that second period there was a little doubt creeping into our mind but at the same time we had a pretty solid third period. They made it close again but it’s all worth it."
Konrad Abeltshauser added two goals and an assist, while Martin Frk had a goal and two assists for Halifax, which got 40 saves from Zachary Fucale as a team from the QMJHL won the Memorial Cup for the third straight year.
"Right now there’s so much going through my mind," Fucale said. "It’s that feeling you can’t describe.
"It felt like the longest game ever but now it seems as if it went so fast, as if the past two years just flew by. This feels as if it’s not even real. This is crazy."
Mooseheads coach Dominique Ducharme said his best players excel when the games mean the most.
"Nathan, Jonathan and Fucale … those guys, they like big moments," he said. "They like playing in big games and they want to be difference makers and tonight they were.
"Those guys like facing big teams and big moments and big challenges. Tonight they just showed that they’re big-time players."
Ty Rattie had a goal and three assists, while Nicolas Petan added a goal and two assists for the Winterhawks. Seth Jones and Brendan Leipsic also scored for Portland, while Mac Carruth made 35 stops for the Western Hockey League champions.
"It’s not kind of disappointing, it’s very disappointing," said Winterhawks coach Travis Green, whose team was down 3-0 after the first period. "I thought we showed a lot of heart coming back. We made a late push but it wasn’t enough."
Leading 3-2 in the third, MacKinnon gave his team some breathing room at 7:36 with his tournament-leading sixth goal by chipping a puck past a fallen Carruth.
Abeltshauser then followed up on a MacKinnon rush to bury a rebound at 11:11 to make it 5-2.
Leipsic got one back for Portland at 14:32 and Rattie scored with 1:14 left to cut the deficit to one, but MacKinnon iced the game with 22.4 seconds remaining before the Mooseheads spilled onto to the ice to celebrate at the final buzzer.
"It’s probably the greatest game I’ve ever played. It’s just the greatest moment," Drouin said. "It’s unbelievable. Winning the Memorial Cup with this group of guys is remarkable.
"We’ll remember this game for probably the rest of our lives."
Down 3-0 after a disastrous first period, the Winterhawks came out with renewed vigour in the second, outshooting the Mooseheads 18-6 and scoring twice.
Portland got its first while killing a penalty when Rattie jumped on a Halifax turnover in the Mooseheads end and fed Petan, who beat Fucale with a backhand move at 10:36.
The Winterhawks, who won the WHL title despite the season-long suspension of coach and general manager Mike Johnston for transgressions that included financial perks for players and their families, looked to have cut the deficit to one later in the period, but after a video review it was judged Rattie directed the puck into the net with his glove.
No review would be needed a few minutes later with the teams playing 4-on-4 when Jones, a defenceman who is the No. 1 ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting ahead of June’s draft, roofed a shot on Fucale from in tight with 1:19 left in the period.
The Mooseheads, who lost just six games in the regular season and once in the playoffs as the CHL’s top-ranked team before earning a bye right to the final of this tournament, were a step ahead in the first period.
"They came out hard," Rattie said. "We stuck together like we have all year. We came out in the second period, third period and played our game."
After Stephen MacAulay, Frk and MacKinnon couldn’t connect for Halifax on three glorious chances in front of Carruth, Abeltshauser got Halifax on the board at 6:31. The overage German defenceman, playing his final game for the Mooseheads, ripped a one-timer off a feed from Drouin from the point past a screened Carruth up high on the power play.
MacKinnon, who is second on the NHL’s Central Scouting list behind Jones and also had a hat trick and an assist in Halifax’s 7-4 victory over Portland in the round robin, made it 2-0 just 89 seconds later, snapping a quick shot past Carruth from the slot.
The Mooseheads stretched their lead to three at 15:59 on a rocket of a one-timer from Frk off another feed from Drouin that beat a helpless Carruth upstairs. Drouin, who was named CHL player of the year on Saturday, is ranked No. 3 behind Jones and MacKinnon ahead of the draft.
Carruth, an emotional goalie who wears his heart on his sleeve, kept the score at 3-0 in the final minute of the period with two big saves, but Portland still found itself in a big hole before rallying in the second.
"We weren’t sharp," Winterhawks defenceman Derrick Pouliot said. "It took us a period to wake up and by then it was real tough to come back."
Meanwhile, the Mooseheads are looking forward to sharing their first championship with their fans back home.
"I’m proud of everyone and so happy for the people of Halifax who supported the organization for so long," Ducharme said. "This year was just incredible and to come back to Halifax with that trophy and share it with them is going to great."
Notes: Fucale, Pouliot, Abeltshauser, MacKinnon, Frk and Rattie were named to the tournament all-star team. Saskatoon Blades goalie Andrey Makarov was named the top goalie, while London Knights centre Bo Horvat won the sportsmanship award. … Saint John won the Memorial Cup in 2011, while Shawinigan took the title last year. … Carruth allowed all seven Halifax goals on 35 shots in Portland’s loss to Halifax in the round robin. … Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain and Saskatoon Blades alumni Wendel Clark dropped the puck at the ceremonial faceoff. … Portland won the Memorial Cup in 1983 and 1998. … Attendance at the Credit Union Centre was 11,488.