SASKATOON, Sask. — The Portland Winterhawks and Halifax Mooseheads may see a mirror image when they face off in each team’s MasterCard Memorial Cup opener on Saturday.
Both are built with star power, deploy similar strategies and enjoyed the same type of success in their runs to becoming Western Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions.
“I find we look alike a lot,” Mooseheads head coach Dominique Ducharme said. “The way they’re built and the strengths on both sides are similar.”
These two teams also have the consensus top three draft prospects for the NHL draft. Portland defenceman Seth Jones and Halifax forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are the anticipated first three picks and will rediscover their rivalry after meeting at the world juniors in Russia in January.
“He’s not going to try to battle me harder or anything like that,” MacKinnon said of facing Jones. “He’s going to treat me like anybody else. It’s going to be tough playing against him.”
The Winterhawks counter offensively with their top line of Ty Rattie, Nicolas Petan and Brendan Leipsic, who combined for 350 points in the regular season. Mooseheads defenceman Trey Lewis believes practising against MacKinnon and Drouin will prepare him for the challenge of the Winterhawks’ top trio.
“When you’ve got Nathan MacKinnon bearing down on you every day in practice, you’re not that scared of that much else out there,” he said.
WHICH TEAM’S TRANSITION GAME WILL WIN OUT?
Among the many similarities is both teams’ ability to turn defence into offence. The play between the blue-lines could dictate the pace and result of this game.
“The neutral zone’s going to be key I think on both sides,” Ducharme said. “It has a lot of influence on the time of possession and playing in the offensive zone.”
“Puck management’s going to be a big part of this game,” Winterhawks head coach Travis Green added. “Both teams like the puck, both teams want the puck and only one team can have it. It’s probably going to be a game of whoever can control the puck and play their game the best is going to win.”
CAN PORTLAND ACTIVATE THEIR D?
The Winterhawks’ top four defencemen, consisting of Jones, Tyler Wotherspoon, Troy Rutkowski and Derrick Pouliot, are very adept at moving the puck and jumping in the rush to create odd-man rushes. It can create a nightmare for the opposition if they’re not prepared for it.
“It can be real good, force their players to back-check, force their forwards to always keep an eye out for us,” Jones said. “Obviously, joining the rush is a big part of how we want to play our game. For them to back-check and to use more energy defensive-wise (rather) than offensive, I think that will really help us.”
The Mooseheads feel they’ll be ready for it and can even use it to their advantage.
“That’s also been a huge part of our game plan all year, our back pressure from our forwards causing turnovers in the neutral zone,” Lewis said. “Maybe Portland’s offensive defencemen will be helpful and those turnovers in the neutral zone, maybe they’ll get caught with our back-checking forwards.”
Jones and his partners will be mindful when to pinch.
“You have to be smart about (picking) your spots,” he said. “If it’s a one-on-three, you’re not going to jump in the play, or a two-on-three.”
WHICH GOALIE WILL STEAL THE SPOTLIGHT?
Both teams received stellar goaltending throughout the season and playoffs. Halifax’s Zachary Fucale is a top prospect in the goaltending fraternity and also considered a potential first-round pick for an NHL team this summer.
Through his experience this year and last, along with some in international play, Fucale knows how crucial the first game will be for his team.
“You come into the game and you know there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of excitement and you have to know to control that and bring it in your advantage,” he said.
Portland’s overager Mac Carruth shone in the Winterhawks’ playoff run. He’s not afraid to mix it up, as his reputation precedes.
“I like to get engaged a little bit — it helps me get in the game,” he said. “In the WHL, I think I was probably the most hit goalie in the league, but it’s something I like and it’s something I kind of thrive off of.”
“We wouldn’t be here talking right now if it wasn’t for Mac Carruth,” Rattie said. “He’s going to continue to carry our team in this whole tournament.”
COULD THIS BE THE BEST GAME OF THE TOURNAMENT?
Many are already predicting Saturday’s game could be the most entertaining of the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Since both teams play similarly, fans may be hoping they let it loose and play a run-and-gun style. Fournier doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for that style.
“It’s really important that we don’t start getting trapped in the run-and-gun game,” Fournier said. “They have people that can score; we have people that can score and it’s tossing up a coin to see who’s going to win.”
“Hopefully we don’t let anybody down with a 1-0 game,” MacKinnon kidded. “It should be exciting, high scoring. But at the same time, we’re playing to win, not to excite anybody. It could end up being boring, but we’ll see how it plays out.”
The Winterhawks aren’t about to close up shop offensively for fear of getting burned by the Mooseheads.
“We’re not going to all of a sudden become a trapping team against a team that has a lot of speed,” Green concluded. “I like the way our team plays. I like the style we play and we’ll be mindful of their strengths.”