SASKATOON — After being swept in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs, many questioned whether the host Saskatoon Blades even belonged at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
They emphatically put those doubts rest with a gritty win over the Canadian Hockey League’s top team.
Matej Stransky scored twice and Andrey Makarov made 29 saves as Saskatoon picked up its first victory in more than two months by beating the star-studded Halifax Mooseheads 5-2 on Sunday night.
"There’s a lot of doubt in this city, or there was, going into tonight and they had every reason to," Blades centre Lukas Sutter said. "We had to do something to spark some belief and excitement."
The Blades did just that against a team whose roster includes top NHL prospects Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin.
Collin Valcourt, Darren Dietz and Josh Nicholls, into an empty net, had the other goals for Saskatoon (1-1), which dropped a hard-fought 3-2 decision to the London Knights in Friday's tournament opener, but held on against the CHL's No. 1 ranked team.
"We've never had doubt in that room and I think we needed a game like this to show the fans and the whole city that they can get behind us and have something to feel confident about," said Nicholls, who also had an assist. "I think (the Credit Union Centre) was the loudest its been in my five years here."
Stephen MacAuley and MacKinnon replied in the third period for Halifax (1-1), which lost just six games during the regular season and once in the playoffs while cruising to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title. Zachary Fucale made 26 stops in defeat.
With the Mooseheads down 1-0 and pressing for the tie late in the second period, Stransky collected a loose puck after coming out of the penalty box. The Dallas Stars prospect moved in alone on Fucale and roofed a shot under the crossbar with 1:15 left to help send Saskatoon, which hadn't played in 51 days prior to the game against London, to its first win since a 3-2 shootout decision over the Edmonton Oil Kings on March 12.
"It's been a while since we've had that win. It's been over 60 days since we've won a hockey game," said Blades defenceman Duncan Siemens, whose team will meet the Portland Winterhawks in Wednesday's round-robin finale of the tournament to decide the CHL champion. "It's been a long time and it feels great to get that one, but we're not satisfied."
Halifax, which was playing its second game in as many night's after Saturday's 7-4 victory over Portland, was thwarted time and again by Makarov.
A Russian netminder who is property of the Buffalo Sabres, Makarov stopped MacKinnon early in the second off the rush with Saskatoon up 1-0 and made a big save on Halifax's Stefan Fournier eight minutes into the period.
While Makarov was brilliant, he got a lot of help from his teammates, who blocked shots with reckless abandon, especially on the power play before Stransky's second goal.
"I thought they outworked us for the majority of the game," said MacKinnon, whose team lost for just the eighth time in regulation all season. "I thought we had a good last 10-12 minutes to the night but that's not enough and we've got to regroup.
"We don't like the feeling (of losing) but we'll handle it like men and pros and move on."
Valcourt made it 3-0 just 1:43 into the third, banging a puck home off a scramble in front of Fucale before Dietz scored another one from in tight on the power play just 57 seconds later.
"They played with more energy than us and desperation," Mooseheads coach Dominique Ducharme said. "They felt their back maybe a little bit more to the wall and they reacted. You've got to give them credit. They battled hard.
"You look at the goals that were scored. Three of them are battles in front of the net for loose pucks or rebounds."
MacAuley got Halifax on the board by ripping a shot past Makarov at 6:48 of the third before MacKinnon added his fourth of the tournament at 8:19. The Mooseheads pressed for more, but couldn't find another way past Makarov before Nicholls iced it with two seconds to go.
The Blades led 1-0 after an exciting first period that featured five combined power plays, good chances at both ends and a couple of hard hits.
Saskatoon opened the scoring at 12:11 when Stransky jammed a loose puck past Fucale after the Mooseheads goalie failed to control a rebound in his crease.
Nicholls, who is in the final days of his junior career, summed up the emotion in the Blades locker-room after a victory that was a long time coming.
"Today is one of the best feelings I think all of us have had in playing the game of hockey," Nicholls said. "I think we were just all together as a group. Each guy was on the same page and we were all pushing each other on that bench to gain some energy. At no point did we fatigue at all. We kept pushing each other and charging each other's batteries."
Notes: MacKinnon is ranked as the No. 2 North American skater ahead of next month's NHL draft, while Drouin is No. 3. ... Attendance was 8,934. ... Portland (0-1) meets London (1-0) in Monday's game. Next up for Halifax is a date with the Knights on Tuesday. If necessary, a tiebreaker would be played Thursday. The semifinal between the second- and third-place teams goes Friday, with the first-place club getting a bye directly into Sunday's final. ... The Memorial Cup was first awarded in 1919 in honour of the soldiers killed in the First World War. It now recognizes Canadian soldiers killed in any conflict after being rededicated in 2010.