SASKATOON — Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t think Saturday’s performance at the MasterCard Memorial Cup will change the minds of many NHL scouts, but the flashy centre is sure of one thing — the Halifax Mooseheads deserve their ranking as the No. 1 team in the Canadian Hockey League.
The 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck in the second period, scoring at even strength, on the power play and while shorthanded as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions exploded for five straight goals to cruise past the Portland Winterhawks 7-4 in both teams’ first game at the tournament.
"I think we definitely earned a little bit more respect," MacKinnon told a massive media gathering. "Obviously coming from the (QMJHL), sometimes we get looked down upon a little bit but I thought we had a good game and definitely sent a message."
The slick centre, ranked as the No. 2 North American skater for next month’s draft behind Portland defenceman Seth Jones, added an assist to his hat trick, while Martin Frk, with a goal and an assist, Jonathan Drouin, Luca Ciampini and Stephen MacAuley also scored for a Halifax team that found itself down 3-1 early in the second. Zachary Fucale was strong in net, making 37 saves to get the win as the Mooseheads got off to the start they wanted in the round-robin event to decide the CHL title.
"Obviously (MacKinnon) won’t be scoring three goals every night but at the same time he’s a guy that competes all the time. Tonight he made things happen," Mooseheads coach Dominique Ducharme said. "He was skating. He was hard on the puck. It was hard to get the puck away from him. He was strong on it and obviously he was a key player in our comeback.
"He’s the kind of player that can make a difference like that."
The game featured three top ranked North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting ahead of next month’s draft in Jones, who had a goal in the first period for Portland, MacKinnon and Drouin.
And while Jones is still expected to go first overall in Newark, N.J., this night belonged to the kid from Sidney Crosby’s hometown.
"The (NHL) teams here that are watching us have watched all of us play many times this year. I don’t know how much this game is going to change anything," said MacKinnon as he sported a black fur coat given out by the Mooseheads coaches to their player of game. "Obviously it’s nice to get a few (goals) but I just wanted to win and I’m glad we did."
Troy Rutkowski had two goals for Portland, while Tie Rattie added a goal and two assists. A shaky Mac Carruth allowed seven goals on 35 shots in taking the loss for the Western Hockey League’s top team, which is ranked No. 2 in the CHL.
Ranked as the No. 1 North American skater for the draft in the early part of the season before being overtaken by Jones, MacKinnon put an exclamation point on his performance late in the second period to put the game effectively out of reach. With a goal and an assist already in his back pocket and the Mooseheads up 4-3, he danced around the big Winterhawks defenceman on a Halifax power play at and beat Carruth at 14:03 before firing a shot past the beleaguered netminder from behind the Portland goal-line with 1:25 left in the period.
"He’s a great offensive player, very dynamic. He’s got great foot speed," Jones said. "You saw on his second goal coming down against me — a quick inside-outside move — it’s tough to contain."
With the teams tied 1-1 after the first, goals came fast and furious in the second. Rutkowski scored on a shot from the point after just 39 seconds and Rattie wove through the Halifax defence on a Portland power play before sliding a backhand home at 2:11 to put the Winterhawks up by two.
The two-goal deficit seemed to spark the Mooseheads, who scored the game’s next five goals. Drouin popped a rebound at 3:16 before MacKinnon scored his first of the night on a deflection 1:20 later.
After the Winterhawks’ Oliver Bjorkstrand chimed a shot off the crossbar behind Fucale about eight minutes into the period, Ciampini gave Halifax the lead by walking out of the corner and beating Carruth on the power play at 11:17. MacKinnon then went to work offensively on the power play and the penalty kill to put Halifax in the driver’s seat.
"It wasn’t the start (to the tournament) we wanted. It was the start to the game we wanted. I thought we played real well for about 25 to 27 minutes and the game got away from us for about 10 minutes there," Winterhawks coach Travis Green said. "They got a couple of bounces and they’re a good team and the momentum went to their side."
Rutkowski scored on a Portland man advantage at 1:09 of the third to cut the Halifax lead to 6-4, but MacAulay restored the Mooseheads’ three-goal edge at 5:33.
It wasn’t as easy early on for the Mooseheads as the Winterhawks, who carried the play for much of the first period in outshooting Halifax 16-7, were unlucky to be only tied 1-1 heading to the second.
Rattie ripped off a puck off the post for Portland that stayed out five minutes into the game and Fucale was forced to make a couple of big saves for a Halifax team that was a bit scrambly in its own zone.
Despite having the better chances, the Winterhawks trailed 1-0 after MacKinnon wheeled into the offensive zone and found Frk in the slot, who beat Carruth through the five-hole at 15:46. Jones evened the score just 55 seconds later by taking a pass from Tyler Wotherspoon off the rush and beating Fucale with a snapshot over the glove.
"We didn’t have the first period we wanted," Ducharme said. "After their third goal in the second we came back with our strength and played much better. We’re happy with the win but we know we can be much better (over) 60 minutes.
"We were not skating as well as we’re able to skate. We were not applying pressure. We were watching them a little bit too much and we were not as active as we want to be.
"When we started doing that we played better."
Notes: MacKenzie Weegar had two assists for Halifax, while Derrick Pouliot added three of his own for Portland. … Halifax was 2 for 6 on the power play. Portland scored twice on its eight chances. … The Mooseheads take on the host Saskatoon Blades (0-1) on Sunday. The next game for the Winterhawks goes Monday against the London Knights (1-0). … Steve Hartley, the son of Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley, is an assistant with Halifax. … The crowd of 8,771 at the Credit Union Centre joined in to help anthem singer Alexis Normand after she forgot the words to The Star-Spangled Banner. … Super Fan Cameron Hughes has attended the first two games of the tournament, whipping up the crowd up during commercial breaks. Hughes was profiled in Sports Illustrated last August.