LONDON — The Edmonton Oil Kings were fresh off a semi-final victory over Val d’Or when they came down to breakfast at a hotel out by the highway Saturday morning. By “fresh” I mean that they were about eight hours removed from a triple-overtime marathon, the longest game in Memorial Cup history. By “come down to breakfast” I mean that they stumbled through the lobby like they were jet lagged.
When it comes to coaching we talk a lot about helping players develop skills in practice and matching lines in game situations, yet managing a team’s energy might be more important than anything else at an elite level. It’s a theme that comes up time and time again when you corner a coach. From my experience Ken Hitchcock summed it up best with the Dallas Stars’ Stanley Cup championship team back in ’99. “I think the one thing we led the league in this season was days off,” he said.
The fact that the NHL regular-season is a little bit longer than those CHL teams play matters not. You can make a case that the grind for the teams in this MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament is as daunting or more so than that faced by NHL teams. Consider this: The top players in tournament, Edmonton’s Griffin Reinhart and Curtis Lazar, London’s Bo Horvat, Max Domi and Ryan Rupert, Val d’Or’s Anthony Mantha and Guelph’s Matt Finn and Kirby Rychel, not only played their complements of regular-season games but reported to Hockey Canada’s under-20 development camp back on August 4. At the same time Edmonton’s Henrik Samuelsson and London’s Anthony Stolarz were reporting to USA Hockey’s camp in Lake Placid and Guelph’s Rob Fabbri was off to the Czech Republic with Canada’s under-18 team for the Ivan Hlinka tournament. With the Subway Series games and world juniors in between you have players who played international hockey in August and over New Year’s reaching down to fire up their games in the national championship as May closes—already with four series and 16 playoff victories behind them by the time they dropped the puck in London.
It would have to exact a crushing toll even before you factor in the onerous bus travel—Val d’Or probably the worse for wear geographically of the teams in London, given at their one of the farthest flung of QMJHL teams and went seven games in the league final against remote Baie-Comeau.
Strangely, the least energized team in London were the host Knights who had a month off before the tournament after falling to Guelph in the second round of the OHL playoffs. For London, though, it was a toll exacted across the last three seasons, this being a third trip to the Memorial Cup.
“Talking to people around the team, their key guys, [centre Bo] Horvat especially, just ran completely out of gas,” one NHL scout said today. “Yeah, they had a month off before the tournament but their batteries were going to need the whole summer to get recharged. The way they went down to Guelph [in the second round of the OHL playoffs] … that wasn’t the London team we saw the last two seasons. They were in trouble–their top players have played a lot of hockey over their careers.”
To get to London both Edmonton and Val d’Or had to go seven games in their league finals and win on the road to boot. Said the NHL scout: “It really showed up with Mantha. He carried a real load for the team right through the playoffs. He was off his game … really lacked the jump that you saw other times.”
If the Oil Kings were only dealing with fatigue from the triple-OT semi-final win it would be bad enough, but the double-OT loss to Val d’Or Tuesday night just compounds the issue. Thankfully Curtis Lazar found his legs for a shift before midnight Friday or Edmonton might have been able to go directly from the arena to breakfast.
It’s easy to like Guelph against Edmonton tomorrow. The Storm look like the best team in the tournament and easily the best rested, having rolled through the OHL playoffs in not much over the minimum games and driving down the 401 for an hour to the big show. Guelph certainly looks like the deepest team. You might make a case that Lazar is a brighter talent up front than anyone on Guelph, but it’s too much to ask him to do it again, especially when he is going to have to weather the Storm’s punishing physical game. The prayer for teams in the Oil Kings’ straits is always that a goaltender will steal a game for them but Edmonton’s netminder Tristan Jarry has given up weak ones at inopportune times here.
Though they’ll be underdogs in the final, I suspect that the Oil Kings won’t lose any sleep over it. They can hardly afford to.