MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — The storylines heading into Sunday’s MasterCard Memorial Cup final between the Saint John Sea Dogs and the host Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors are endless.
The right to become junior hockey’s national champion will be on the line and one team’s storybook season will end with the biggest prize, the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Saint John advanced to the final with a 2-1 round robin record, that included a 4-3 win over the Majors in the tournament opener, while the Majors advanced by defeating the Kootenay Ice in Friday’s semifinal.
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A year ago, Sea Dogs goalie Jacob DeSerres was a member of the Brandon Wheat Kings who were thumped 9-1 in the final by the Windsor Spitfires. DeSerres will be in goal Sunday and knows it will be a memorable day, one way or another.
“It can be the greatest feeling in the world or the absolute worst,” he said Saturday. “I saw the looks on Kootenay’s (players’) faces and boy, I don’t want to feel like that again. I knew exactly what they felt like and I would much rather be on the winning side.”
The Majors know the stings of defeat as well as anyone after watching the Owen Sound Attack celebrate at the Hershey Centre following the Attack’s overtime win in Game 7 of the Ontario Hockey League final.
Sportsnet’s Tony Ambrogio is reporting Saint John Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant confirms centre Steven Anthony will play tonight. Has been out since suffering left knee injury in Game 1 of QMJHL final.
“After watching Owen Sound celebrate on our ice, we don’t want Saint John to,” Majors captain Casey Cizikas said. “No one wants to have that feeling that we had last time in Game 7.”
But in spite of the friendly sentiments towards the opposing coaching staffs, who have known each other for decades dating back to when they grew up on Prince Edward Island, there won’t be any friendliness when the puck drops.
“I said at the start of the tournament, if we didn’t win it, I would want them to win it,” said Majors head coach Dave Cameron. “But hell with them, I want us to win it. I was just being nice.”
How much will home ice play a factor?
This is why the Majors bid for the right to host the tournament. Mississauga may not have the most passionate fans or the most loyal fan base, but the opportunity to win the championship on home ice could be a special moment in team history.
The Majors have won 34 of 45 home games this year in the regular season and playoffs combined and another three of four in this tournament. The atmosphere should be the most electric it has ever been in Mississauga.
Saint John was a perfect 10-0 on the road in the QMJHL playoffs and have won two of three in the national championship. The Sea Dogs won all three games in what many believe is the most raucous building, the Robert Guertin Arena in Gatineau, in the league final.
“I don’t think playing at home is any real advantage because they’ve played here now, they’re comfortable, they’ve been set up here for weeks,” Cameron said. “I don’t think it’s a huge advantage.”
How big is scoring the first goal?
Getting on the board first can never be overlooked. Mississauga is the type of team that likes to take a lead then make it absolutely frustrating for its opposition to break through their defensive style. The Majors like playing with a lead and forcing the opposition into playing to their strengths.
“The key is trying to get the first goal,” Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant admitted. “It’s always nice to score first, but for us it’s not a major issue for me. Not with my team.”
The Sea Dogs have proven to be a team that can rally from deficits all season long. The Majors, meanwhile, are not known as an explosive offensive team, but feel they have the horses to get back if they fall behind.
“We have four lines that are deadly,” Cizikas said. “That’s what we use to our advantage all year. The depth of our team is definitely one of the biggest things for us.”
Can the Sea Dogs avoid the same pitfall that befell the Kootenay Ice?
Kootenay was unable to come back in Friday’s semifinal in large part because they were being forced to play a dump and chase game. Mississauga clogged up the neutral zone and made it difficult to carry the puck across the blue line, forcing the Ice to chase after it. This worked perfectly to Mississauga’s advantage since JP Anderson is such a strong, puck-playing goalie and continually ended Kootenay rushes before they could start. This game-plan may not transfer as well against Saint John.
“We’re not Kootenay,” Gallant said. “We’re pretty confident in our ability to skate through teams. We’ve done it all season long.
“Anderson handles the puck well. You don’t give it to him. You chip it cross-corner, you chip it the same side in the corner. Don’t let him handle the puck, that’s all.”
Will rest or momentum play a bigger factor?
The Majors may have an advantage given the fact they’ve played and won meaningful hockey games the past couple of days. Mississauga won their final round robin game over Owen Sound on Wednesday and again on Friday to advance to the final. The team is hot and hasn’t had the chance for rest days to pile up and develop rust in their game.
The Sea Dogs, on the other hand, knew they would play in this game after winning their second game over Owen Sound on Monday. Their last game was on Tuesday, a game that meant nothing to them, and since then they have been practicing and waiting for this game all week. The possibility for the Sea Dogs to come out rusty exists.
“I don’t know their club well enough to know how they’re going to respond to that,” Cameron said. “Rest is important. Is there such a thing as too much rest in this tournament? I’m not sure. Us playing the semifinal game I don’t think is going to hurt us at all. The only thing is with that extra game you have a tendency for injuries… (but) I don’t think it’s going to make or break you by any means.”
Are we in for a classic?
Many of the players discussed how entertaining and unpredictable a seven-game series between these two teams could be following their first meeting over a week ago.
Saint John defenceman Nathan Beaulieu described a physical battle with intrigue.
“It would be interesting to play them in a seven-game series, but I think we’re happy just with one,” he said on May 20.
Lucky for us, we get two.
As Dave Cameron would say: Game on!