Memorial Cup round robin takeaways: One of the wildest tournaments ever

Jeff Marek, Colby Armstrong and Todd Warriner recap Stuart Skinner's performance against the Hamilton Bulldogs at the Mastercard Memorial Cup plus much more.

REGINA — The 100th Mastercard Memorial Cup has provided us with a little bit of everything. It started with the opening ceremonies and last Thursday’s Eagles concert. When play started Friday night, the host team restored confidence in the Regina faithful and we have been treated to some of the most compelling hockey I’ve seen in 13 years working the Memorial Cup.

If the semifinal and final are anything like the round-robin, we’re in for one heck of a finish. Here are a few takeaways now that the round-robin is over.

11. The tie-breaking procedure is convoluted: Although it hasn’t happened in a few years, one thing that rears its head on occasion is the tie-breaking procedure. In Tuesday’s game, a Titan win could’ve sent Acadie-Bathurst straight to the final. A two-goal win by the Bulldogs would’ve put them straight into the final. A one-goal Hamilton win left the fate of Hamilton and Acadie-Bathurst in the hands of the two Saskatchewan teams.

With under two minutes to go, Titan head coach Mario Pouliot elected not to take his goalie out with the power play for fear of giving the dreaded two-goal win to Hamilton. Instead, he chose to protect the one-goal deficit and put his faith in the Regina Pats to win Wednesday, another scenario that would put the Titan straight into Sunday’s final. The issue in question is coaches and players know nothing other than winning and in this case Pouliot chose to play to the score. That’s unfamiliar territory for anyone involved in sports. It did provide for great fodder in the media room. On one hand, this tournament is so different than the regular season and playoffs, why shouldn’t teams have to play to the score when it is dictated? On the other hand, shouldn’t winning always be the main goal at such a big event?

10. Swift Current ran out of gas: It took the Broncos a WHL record 26 games to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Add in more than five periods of overtime play and the Broncos were roughly 19 minutes shy of playing the max number of games to earn their title. Add to that the grind of a 72-game regular season and WHL travel and you have a team that simply ran out of gas.

Despite being just two hours and 15 minutes down the road, with excellent fan support, the Broncos couldn’t muster the energy required to win a game against this excellent field. The mental and physical toll it took for them to win the “Ed” simply could not be replicated. It happens every year, where a team utilizes all its passion and energy just to win a league title and fails to get it back for the Memorial Cup. The Broncos were dealing with a concussion to Tyler Steenbergen, and severe shoulder issues with Aleksi Heponiemi and captain Glenn Gawdin.

9. Find your way to San Jose, Jeffrey Truchon-Viel is the real deal: The Titan captain inked a pro deal with San Jose during the QMJHL final and he deserved it. Truchon-Viel plays in all situations, has great physical edge to his game and he’s a leader both on and off the ice. Viel lead the Titan with nine round robin points, including a shorthanded and a power play marker. The Titan are the only team in the tournament to puck up the pucks after the warm-up and I’m quite sure Viel’s leadership has something to do with that.

8. Close competition: I’ve never witnessed such a tight tournament. The round robin portion featured five one-goal games, and another that had an empty-net goal with .8 seconds left on the clock. Oddly enough, that empty-netter factored into the tie-breaking equation, giving the Acadie-Bathurst Titan a slight edge and ultimately sending them to Sunday’s final. What has made the one-goal game scenarios so interesting is how many of them were decided late.

On opening night, Nick Henry’s game-winner over Hamilton was scored with 33 seconds left. On night two, we needed overtime to witness Acadie-Bathurst’s win over Swift Current. Marian Studenic’s game winner for Hamilton on Tuesday was scored with 2:10 left on the clock, in a 3-2 win over Bathurst. And the real doozy was Regina hanging on by a thread to end Swift Current’s tournament, in a game that featured four goals in the final 5:38 of the third, including Swift Current’s frantic final minute flurry.

7. 54, needed one more: Edmonton Oilers prospect Stuart Skinner put up one of the best goaltending performances I’ve ever seen. His 54-save effort against Hamilton almost single-handedly extended the Broncos’ playoff life. If not for Marian Studenic fanning on his one-time attempt with 2:01 left in the game, they might still be playing. Skinner got over in time, but his momentum carried him forward while Studenic’s shot rolled off the top and up and over a sprawling Skinner. A day later, Skinner asked head coach Manny Viveiros if his team could spend the day paint-balling. The coache’s response, “no Stu, you got hit enough yesterday.”

6. Players’ dinner: RJ Broadhead and I were privileged enough to host the champions dinner that featured the four participating teams and their respective staffs. We were truly in elite company. Two things happened at that dinner that brought a tear to my eye.

We had the opportunity to meet and sit with Humboldt bus crash survivor Jacob Wasserman and his family. The Pats, whom Wasserman spent a month with this year, didn’t know he was in attendance. When the doors opened, there was Wasserman in his wheelchair and he was greeted with smiles and hugs from all of his Pats teammates. A short time later, Bathurst’s Truchon-Viel got up from his seat and lead a parade of Titan players and staff over to Wasserman. Viel presented a Titan jersey signed by the team, introduced himself, then shook Wasserman’s hand. Every person in the room wound up shaking Wasserman’s hand.

5. Dab for the Dobber: Two conversations strike me more than any I’ve had over my time here in Regina in regards to Noah Dobson. The first was a lobby conversation with Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Haydn Fleury, whose brother Cale plays for Regina. The first statement he made was asking who this Dobson kid was? “He’s unreal.” Fleury then waxed poetic about the play of the Titan star. Second are the continuous remarks made by Fan radio analyst Marty Williamson, who is the current coach of USports’ Brock Badgers. Williamson has raved about Dobson’s poise, skating ability and decision-making all tournament long. That’s high praise for someone who coached Dougie Hamilton and Vince Dunn amongst several other former and current NHLers.

4. Don’t fluff the pillows: Acadie-Bathurst’s 8-6 win over Regina was a barn burner. You could not blame Titan fans if they turned away from Sunday’s third period. Acadie-Bathurst was up 6-2 through 40 minutes and the lead was extended further after Ethan Crossman’s second goal of the night 1:39 into the third. But the Pats weren’t about to quit. Cameron Hebig and Nick Henry scored three minutes apart to breathe life back into the building. Matt Bradley’s marker at 18:03 brought the Pats to within one, but Dobson stepped up and nailed the empty-netter to seal it for the Titan. All told the teams combined to score six goals in the third period.

3. Don’t fluff the pillows, Part II: The most compelling round robin game featured the battle of Saskatchewan. The Pats and Broncos were playing their 29th game against one another over the past two seasons. The 2017 playoffs saw Regina win Game 7 of their second round series to end the Broncos’ season, but it wasn’t without collateral damage as Adam Brooks, Austin Wagner and Nick Henry were all hurt in the series, which ultimately cost the Pats a title. In Round 1 of the 2018 playoffs, the Broncos were outshot 38-21 in Game 7 on home ice, but still managed to edge the Pats 3-2 to kick off the longest championship run in WHL history.

The stage was set for the Pats to get revenge at the Memorial Cup. Regina lead 5-2 after Bryce Platt’s goal at the 10:43 mark of the third. But just under four minutes later, Aleksi Heponiemi scored, followed 2:49 later by Giorgio Estephan’s goal with the Broncos’ net empty. Swift Current pulled Skinner for a second time, but after the puck got to neutral ice Skinner stayed on and Swift Current was penalized for too may men. Of course the Pats scored to regain the two-goal edge, but with time still left, Skinner was out again when Glenn Gawdin scored with :50 seconds left to get the Broncos to within one yet again. Gawdin had two more attempts in the dying seconds, but both were blocked by Pats defenders and the game ended with with five combined goals scored over the final 9:17.

2. Colton Strong: We didn’t have to look far to find another inspiring story. Enter colleague Jeff Marek’s roomie and bud, 19-year-old Colton Kuepfer from Waterloo. The Kitchener Rangers super fan loves the CHL, and all things hockey, especially the statistical side of the game. Colton wanted a chance to see what the Memorial Cup was all about, having seen his Rangers fall short in the OHL’s Western Conference final in double overtime. No problem said Marek, who invited Kuepfer out to Regina, offered up his room and a very special Sportsnet credential to witness the tournament. Kuepfer has been hanging out with our panel before, during and after games. Great to see Jeff, Todd and Colby so welcoming to Colton, whose ongoing battle with cancer hasn’t made him immune to Colby’s friendly barbs.

1. Humboldt (Arm)Strong: Seeing my colleague Colby Armstrong tearfully will his way through a couple of different interviews after the horrific Humboldt bus crash was emotional to watch. The Saskatchewan native took it extremely hard. After all, he could relate to a team of kids trying to win a league title while traveling the lonely roads of this province.

On opening night of the Memorial Cup, several of the recovering Broncos and their families were on hand to be honoured before the Eagles concert. Colby wound up spending most of the evening with a number of the players, sharing hockey stories as if they were teammates. He seemed to know just about everything that was going on, from those still in the hospital to the recoveries of those who were released. It was great to see those kids so happy to hang out with an ex-NHL player, and I’m sure some of the laughter they shared provided a small sample of healing for them.

Colby continues to epitomize all that is good about the human condition. He helped organize the charitable concert in Saskatoon, his family opened up their doors to help out, he’s taken some of the kids to Pittsburgh, amongst countless other things that I have not been privy to. His humour is infectious. What a wonderful human being, not to mention one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.

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