SASKATOON, Sask. – The dream final is set as the Portland Winterhawks and Halifax Mooseheads meet in Sunday’s MasterCard Memorial Cup final.
The winner-take-all final will see two of the top teams clash, along with the top three draft-eligible prospects collide. Portland’s Seth Jones and Halifax’s Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin will make this a memorable final game in the Canadian Hockey League season.
“It’s a funny coincidence,” Jones said Saturday after accepting the Jack Link’s Top Prospect of the Year award. “A lot of people predicted these two teams would be in the final and it just so happened to work that way.”
The players are aware who they’re going up against.
"I don’t want to hype it up too much myself," MacKinnon said. "Being a fan, I’d really love to see this, but I guess now that I’m in these shoes, I know it’s a team thing and not just an individual thing. But obviously it adds a little more excitement to it."
"I don’t think you could write it any better way," Winterhawks forward Taylor Peters said. "Almost you could say it’s fate that the three of them are playing in the final game now."
But aside from that tantalizing storyline, the CHL’s top prize will be determined between the wire-to-wire leaders from their respective leagues. Their round robin game was among the most hyped, and it didn’t disappoint. The Mooseheads rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win 7-4 in Portland’s only loss in the tournament.
"It’s kind of cool to get another (chance)," Jones said. "They obviously beat us pretty badly the first game here and we’re obviously looking for a little redemption."
WHICH TEAM WILL HARNESS MOMENTUM LONGEST?
Momentum distinctly rode on both sides in their previous meeting. Winterhawks head coach Travis Green has said the first 25 minutes of their first meeting were among the best his team played in the tournament. Things changed when the Mooseheads seized it, and rallied to score five unanswered goals to close out the second period.
"Our team is kind of prone to laying off the gas when we get a little lead and I think that’s what’s happened that game," Peters said. "In this final, we’re going to have to keep our heads in it depending on regardless of whether we have any highs or lows."
"It’s a 60 minute game," Green added. "We’ve seen that throughout the whole tournament where we’ve gotten leads and when you’re playing good teams, there’s going to be momentum swings and you just have to keep your emotions in check and stay with what you’re doing best."
WILL THE GAME OPEN UP INTO A RUN-AND-GUN?
It might be hard for these two teams not to get caught up in a track meet given the dynamic scorers on both sides. Both teams are offensively-charged, which should make for an entertaining game, if not for giving the coaches a few more grey hairs.
"That’s a tough question," Green said when asked if he minded a run-and-gun game. "If we’re putting our chances in the net, then I don’t mind the trading chances. I don’t think both coaches are going to want their teams to be giving up chances."
"Our identities are kind of run-and-gun, but we don’t want to get too much into that," MacKinnon said. "It’s going to happen a little bit, but for us, we just want to play good D and the offence will take care of itself."
"It’s going to be a fast pace and it’s definitely going to be a run-and-gun game," Jones added. "Both teams are very skilled and have high-octane offences."
CAN THE MOOSEHEADS’ FORWARDS DISRUPT THE WINTERHAWKS’ OFFENCE?
The Winterhawks’ top four defencemen are well-documented as a skilled, two-way group. They like to activate in the rush and create offensively. This aspect becomes a challenge for many teams trying to defend against them, but the Mooseheads think they have the blueprint.
"Our motto all year’s been able to fore-check as hard as we back-check," forward Stefan Fournier said.
"We just have to try to kill the play before it gets into our zone," MacKinnon continued. "Especially that (Ty) Rattie line, it really sets up well. They cycle the puck really well and sustain pressure, so we have to limit the three-on-twos they get and try to kill the play early."
Another way they can break down the attack is by wearing them down.
"We’re going to try to play down low and work their D," forward Stephen MacAulay said. "They have a lot of solid, big guys back there. If we play in their zone a long time, we can capitalize."
WHICH TEAM WILL SEIZE THE MOMENT?
As is always the case, many of the players playing Sunday will be doing so for the last time in a junior uniform. Each team’s season ends on a bit of a bitter note, with the exception of the winner of this game. Only one of 60 teams can taste the long-lasting glory capped by a dream coming true.
Neither Green nor Halifax head coach Dominique Ducharme are big into speeches. Each team knows the implications and shouldn’t find motivation hard to grasp.
"I’m not going to go Vince Lombardi on them or anything, I don’t really need to," Green said. "You’re playing for the Memorial Cup. A lot of these guys have been in the league five years watching someone hoist it and if I have to go in there and give them a ra-ra speech, then there’s probably something wrong. And I know with our group, I don’t have to do that."
MacAulay, who won a MasterCard Memorial Cup with the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2011, has heard from many of his teammates wishing him luck before his final junior game. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has the least championships won in since the round robin format was adopted in 1972, and those around the league are hoping it stays in QMJHL territory.
"(Jonathan) Huberdeau is really adamant about it," MacAulay said.
For the Winterhawks, a championship on Sunday would be special after all the turmoil surrounding the sanctions and season-long suspension to head coach and GM Mike Johnston.
"Obviously after the sanctions, we kind of played with a chip on our shoulder," Peters said. "With Mike gone, we definitely used that as fuel throughout the rest of the season I think. Not as much a thumbing of the nose, but we definitely have used that as fuel through the whole year and if we win this, it just shows that nothing can stop us."