Morand, Groulx lead Mooseheads to berth in Memorial Cup final

The Halifax Mooseheads earned a bye to the final despite a loss to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies at the Memorial Cup.

The host Halifax Mooseheads and their QMJHL rival Rouyn-Noranda Huskies already knew coming into Wednesday’s round-robin conclusion that they both would be moving on at the Memorial Cup. But it wasn’t yet clear who would get a bye straight to Sunday’s championship final.

And there was a little pride on the line, too. After all, it was just last week the Huskies defeated the Mooseheads in Game 6 of the QMJHL Final to claim the President Cup. Looking for a little redemption, Halifax had a chance to wrap up a perfect round robin and leave the Storm and Huskies to battle it out in the semifinal. The Huskies just wanted to head into Friday’s game with more than a win against the 0-3 Prince Albert Raiders to show for their round-robin — and had a chance to play spoiler against the hosts.

As expected, the two familiar foes treated us to a chippy and hard-fought game that came right down to the final seconds. Rouyn-Noranda came out of it with a 4-3 win, leaving us with a three-way tie atop the standings and a goal differential tie-breaker to decide the playoff bracket.

Here’s what we saw in the final round robin game from the Memorial Cup, and how it sets up the final two games this weekend.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

CAPTAIN MORAND COMES THROUGH WITH STRONG ROUND ROBIN
Eleven players have won back-to-back Memorial Cups on different teams and this year Rouyn-Noranda’s Noah Dobson has been the headliner name in his chase to be 12th on that list. But on Wednesday night, a couple of his former Acadie-Bathurst mates were on the other side of the puck for the host Mooseheads in Samuel Asselin and Antoine Morand.

Morand served as an assistant captain for the Titan in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and was their highest-scoring member last year. A June trade sent him to Halifax and he served as the team captain this year. He finished fifth in team scoring, but where he was the only 70-point player on Acadie-Bathurst a year ago, he was one of seven Mooseheads to hit that total this year.

An important producer for the Memorial Cup hosts, Morand came into the tournament ice cold. He was kept off the scoresheet for the last two games of their series against Drummondville and then was shut out completely by Rouyn-Noranda in the six-game President Cup Final, while posting an ugly-looking minus-7.

But a little home cooking and the big stage of the Memorial Cup has given second life to the 20-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect. Although the Mooseheads scored 300 goals on the season, they came in as the lowest-scoring team in the round robin and there was some question whether or not they could keep up with the pace of their competitors, especially if Raphael Lavoie went cold.

Halifax needed everyone on board and that’s what they got. Morand, who was held goalless in the 2018 Memorial Cup, scored his third in as many games in 2019, a power play marker that gave the Mooseheads a 3-2 lead at the time. (And in hindsight, it was the goal that sent Halifax to the final. More on that later.)

The Mooseheads wrapped up the round robin with 11 goals in three games and Morand is one of the three players at the tournament with three goals, joining Guelph’s Alexey Toropchenko and Nick Suzuki.

GROULX A PROSPECT TO WATCH
Prior to the start of the Memorial Cup, Sam Cosentino ranked the top 10 NHL prospects who would be competing in it. But although Benoit-Olivier Groulx didn’t crack the top 10, Cosentino had to set him aside as an honourable mention because, while he doesn’t have the high-end natural ability some of the best prospects do, you can see a hard-working NHLer there.

Son of Syracuse Crunch head coach — and former Canadian WJC bench boss — Benoit Groulx, the 19-year-old Anaheim Ducks prospect brought tons of energy and was a force on the puck. His physicality was on display all night and with Halifax trailing 2-0 after the first period, Groulx got his team on the board less than a minute into the second period, portending a dominant frame for Halifax. He could have had another goal on a few other close opportunities.

Groulx was a second-round pick just last summer and isn’t signed yet by Anaheim. But you can bet the team, with its very strong draft history under GM Bob Murray, is loving the idea of one day injecting this kind of passion into their lineup.

THE PLAYOFF ROUND IS SET
There were a lot of implications in this game. A win by Halifax would put them straight through to the final, but a Rouyn-Noranda victory would leave all three teams tied at 2-1 and bring goal differential into the equation. And of course, that’s what happened.

The Huskies were even coming in, so they needed a blowout victory to earn the bye. But Halifax and Guelph were close enough that the difference between a one- or two-goal victory for the Huskies on Wednesday would determine who moved on. Had the Huskies won by two goals, Guelph would have advanced to the final and we’d get another meeting between the two QMJHL rivals in the semifinal.

And actually, it looked like Halifax was going to play its own way in. They dominated the second period, and although Rouyn-Noranda’s William Rouleau scored midway through the third to tie it up, just getting to overtime would have been good enough to get the Mooseheads the bye. They continued to do a good job thwarting the Huskies attack, but Jakub Lauko’s goal with 54 seconds left certainly made for some entertaining, teeth-clenching hockey for the home crowd in the final minute.

The Mooseheads wound up holding on to the one goal lead and there was this sort of uneasy celebration afterwards. Sure, the team lost again to the QMJHL champs, but shooting through the semifinal straight to Sunday’s championship game is a big factor in favour of the team that will already have the crowd on its side.

Guelph will meet Rouyn-Noranda Friday night at 7:00 p.m. ET in the Memorial Cup semifinal, with the winner advancing to meet Halifax Sunday at 7:00. You can watch both games on Sportsnet.

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