RIMOUSKI — The Kelowna Rockets had a chance to knock the Windsor Spitfires out of the tournament the other day. The Western Hockey League champions had already locked up a berth in Sunday afternoon’s final and mostly played like a team with nothing to play for against Windsor.
There were flashes of commitment, e.g. centre Cody Almond, out on the penalty kill, getting in front of three Spitfire point shots. Mostly though, it was a flatline effort.
Watch Sunday’s Memorial Cup final between Windsor and Kelowna on Sportsnet, live at 4:30 p.m. ET / 1:30 p.m. PT.
The Ontario league titlists didn’t exactly distinguish themselves in their 2-1 win over Kelowna. They deserved the win and took over the run of play down 1-0 in the second period. The shots were 14-4 in the third period and that fairly represents the tilt of the ice. Three successive Rockets penalties put the Spitfires in a 5-on-3 power play for two-and-a-half minutes. But the Spitfires won with something less than their usual game.
A Memorial Cup provides some games that are instant classics and some that are instantly forgettable. The opening-round game between Kelowna and Windsor fell into the latter category. Fifteen minutes after the buzzer you were hungry for hockey. The final might be one burned indelibly in the memory. At least you can hope.
If the final does rise to the level of memorable, great or classic, I suspect that it will be because of a matchup of two players who will go on to significant NHL careers: Windsor’s electric forward Taylor Hall versus Tyler Myers, the imposing Kelowna d-man.
Hall was credited with the first Windsor goal against the Rockets in the opening-round game, but it was one of those fog-of-war deals: The puck emerged from a scrum in front of Kelowna netminder Mark Guggenberger and deflected off defenceman Tyson Barrie’s leg into the net. Hall had a couple of good moments that went unrewarded but the Rockets did a good job on him.
The biggest obstacle for Hall is the biggest obstacle in the building and anywhere in junior hockey: Myers, all six-foot-eight of him.
Hall played with Myers on the Canadian team that won gold at the under-18s in Russia last spring and skated against him in practice. Hall said that won’t help him in Rimouski a year later.
"He’s a completely different player," Hall said. "He has raised his game a lot in that time."
Clearly, Myers is more confident with the puck. A year ago it looked like he was just a stopper on defence and not a starter of offence. It even looked that way in his turn with the Canadian team at the under-20s in Ottawa just five months back. Now, though, he just doesn’t play well without the puck. He’s a threat to keep it away from opponents and finish plays. His one-season jump in points (from 19 in his draft year to 42 in 2008-09 with games missing for the under-20s) is dramatic enough. He’s raised his game even higher in the post-season: In 22 WHL playoff games, he racked up five goals and 15 assists.
Still, the primary concern for the Spitfires is Myers’s shut-down ability.
"What makes him so tough is his reach and his long stick," Hall said. "You can’t go wide on him."
Well, certainly, you can’t, but if Hall can’t, that’s something. He has to be the fleetest skater in junior hockey at this juncture and anytime he does try to go wide on Myers will be a fascinating bit of theatre.
When asked if he faces anyone in the O who presents the same sort of challenges, Hall had a quick and emphatic response: "Nobody." That wasn’t Hall being evasive. He was just making a statement of the self-evident truth.
When asked if the Rockets had faced a player with a comparable skillset and a quick-strike instinct as Hall, Myers cited Evander Kane of the Vancouver Giants, who Kelowna knocked off in the WHL semi-finals.
"(With Kane) we had to be aware of where he was all the time and try to be physical with him," Myers said.
That approach worked like a charm. In six games, Kane registered just one even-strength goal.
If the Rockets can shut down Hall as effectively it will make it a tough go for the Spitfires.
A couple of other aspects of this individual matchup add intrigue. Hall doesn’t just go north-south or from one wing to the other. No, his game is in three dimensions. When he goes wide at full speed he’s so low to the ice that he might go under that long reach or extended hip of Myers. Then there’s Myers’s shot-blocking. A couple of times in the Windsor game he went down in the slot to block shots from the point —- and effectively shut down shots from both sides of the ice.
The matchup between Hall and Myers won’t be the only one that will factor in the game’s outcome. No, if the Spitfires can get the matchup they want they’ll get shut-down d-men Ben Shutron and Mark Cundari on the ice against Kelowna’s most prolific offensive threat, Jamie Benn, the scorer of four goals in the opening-round game against Drummondville.
Maybe Windsor will split the duties on Benn with Harry Yong and Ryan Ellis — again, the idea being the best way of suppressing Benn is to deny Kelowna the puck in the first place.
For all their promise and obvious talent, Hall and Benn haven’t always covered themselves in glory at this tournament. Hall has taken some bad penalties, the acting-out of a not-yet mature player, against Rimouski. And, as good as Benn was in his first two games here, it looked like he was sleep-walking through the loss to Windsor the other day.
If one of them has a major impact in the final it will be memorable. If both, a classic.