The Canadian Hockey League has finished its regular seasons and playoffs in each of the regions, and the winners are preparing for the biggest tournament of the year in Canadian Junior Hockey: the Mastercard Memorial Cup. Scouts preparing for the draft from all the NHL hockey teams will be heading to Vancouver to see the final four teams square off in the tournament. This is normally where players who have flown under the radar for most of the season can move up in their draft position by showing off their skill. Players with intangibles also get noticed. As always, the tournament can be won by any of the four teams, and none look to have an easy ride to the final. This is only the second time in the history of the Memorial Cup since switching to a four-team tournament in 1983 that two American-based franchises have appeared in the tournament.
Here's a quick preview of each of the teams in the tournament.
The Whalers started slowly this season, opening their campaign with an 8-9-0-0 record through 17 games. Head coach Michael Vellucci took an underachieveing team to their first J. Ross Robertson Trophy since the franchise moved to Michigan. The Whalers began an impressive tear through the OHL, finishing the regular season with a 49-14-2-3 record. They went 16-4 in the playoffs, handily dispatching the Kitchener Rangers and London Knights in five games in each of their series, and won the league championship over the Sudbury Wolves in six games.
The Whalers have a solid offence and steady goaltending. They had six players score better than a point-per-game pace, and all four lines contribute on the scoresheet. Canadian World Junior gold medalist James Neal leads the team in playoff scoring with 12 goals and 13 assists in 20 games. Michal Neuvirth and Jeremy Smith are one of the best tandems in junior hockey in between the pipes. Neuvirth and Smith split the duties up until the second round where Neuvirth took control. His goals-against-average is a respectable 2.45, and his save percentage is a stellar 93.2%.
Where the Whalers might fall is their defensive unit. They need to adapt to the strong forecheck of the opposing teams quickly by making good sharp passes. Sudbury exposed this a little in the OHL Championship, and it might be the best way to upset the Whalers' hopes of winning the Memorial Cup.
No team has been more dominant this season than the Lewiston Maineiacs. They won 26 of their last 27 games, and their last loss in regulation was an 8-3 loss to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan on February 23! The Maineiacs finsihed the season with a 50-14-2-4 record, and went 16-1 in the QMJHL playoffs. They swept the Shawinigan Cataractes in the opening round, defeated the Halifax Mooseheads in five games and swept the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the semi-final before sweeping the Val-d'Or Foreurs in the league championship series. Lewiston is the first American-based team to win the QMJHL's President's Cup Trophy.
The Maineiacs have four lines of scoring depth, and boast Jonathan Bernier in net. They score by committee, and play a gritty, defence-first style of play that looks more at home in the WHL than the flashy QMJHL. They have excellent defensive zone coverage, and their goaltending is superb. They allow very few second-chance opportunities, and are happier to ice the puck than to try and carry it out when the numbers are against them. Having Bernier in between the pipes also helps. He played in all 17 games in the QMJHL playoffs, posting a 2.34 GAA and a .919 save percentage, winning the Guy Lafleur Trophy as the QMJHL's playoff MVP.
Where the Maineiacs may fall is their lack of a pure sniper. There is no go-to guy on the Maineiacs roster that can change a game as soon as he steps on to the ice. If the Maineiacs are down a goal late in a game, this might be their downfall.
The Medicine Hat Tigers gained a berth to the Memorial Cup by defeating the Vancouver Giants in overtime of Game Seven of the WHL Championship. Tigers sophomore forward Brennan Bosch scored the overtime winner to secure the WHL's President's Cup Trophy. The Tigers posted a 52-17-3-0 record in the regular season, and went 16-7 in the playoffs. They needed all seven games to eliminate their division rival Red Deer Rebels, swept the Regina Pats, and defeated the Calgary Hitmen in five games before eliminating Vancouver in the final. Will they be tired? Possibly, but they also have an advantage in having already played three games at the hostile Pacific Coliseum against the Vancouver Giants.
The Tigers have a clear MVP in goaltender Matt Keetley. However, they are fundamentally sound, and have an excellent transition game. If they resemble any NHL team, they looked a lot like the Barney Rubble Hairpieces in terms of capitalizing on turnovers, team speed and scoring chances. Defenseman Kris Russell led the team in scoring this season, and makes an outlet pass as good as anyone I've ever seen. This team is made up of lightning - their speed may blow holes in both the Whalers' and Maineiacs' defences, and that will be to their advantage in going far in the Memorial Cup.
The glaring hole in the Tigers' team is their lack of a pure scorer, much like Lewiston. Medicine Hat has a strong group of forwards like Darren Helm and Derek Dorsett, but neither have the touch of a pure sniper, and Kris Russell is second in team scoring for the playoffs. Medicine Hat will need to find their offensive legs early in the tournament, having been shutout three times in the WHL finals against the Giants.
The Vancouver Giants defended their 2006 WHL Championship as best as anyone can without actually repeating as champions. They went to overtime in Game Seven of the WHL Championship game before losing to the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Giants defeated the Chilliwack Bruins, Seattle Thunderbirds, and Prince George Cougars in five games each before losing in the finals in seven games. They compiled a 45-17-3-7 recod through the regular season, and went 15-7 in the WHL playoffs. Despite their loss to the Tigers, the Giants have remained as one of the elite teams in the CHL. Last year, the Quebec Remparts stunned the Canadian Hockey League by winning the Memorial Cup after losing the QMJHL title to the host Moncton Wildcats. The non-champion team this season has a very good shot at winning the title again.
The Giants are a team of depth. Wacey Rabbit, Michal Repik, and Kenndal McArdle have tremendous ability, and all have proven to be lethal with the puck. As good as their forwards are, their defensive group is even scarier. Captain Brett Festerling leads by example in terms of his work ethic, and his teammates follow his lead. Jonathon Blum, Cody Franson and Brendan Mikkelson provide a pile of scoring from the back-end, and their third defensive pairing of A.J. Thelen and Brent Regner would be top four defensemen on any team. If the Giants have anything they can fall back on, it's their experience. They have 16 players returning to the Memorial Cup this season from last year's team. They know what they have to do in order to be successful in front of their hometown fans. The Giants are physical and rugged, something they can use to wear down their opponents.
The biggest weakness that the Giants have is similar to the other teams: a lack of a true offensive sniper that can carry the team in a clutch situation. Gilbert Brule provided that spark last year, but there is no one carrying the torch this season. If this team is trailing at the end of the third period, it will be interesting to see who steps up for Vancouver.
The tournament kicks off tonight at 9pm EST with Plymouth squaring off against Vancouver. The full tournament schedule is listed below.
Friday, May 18 @ 6:00pm PST - Plymouth @ Vancouver
Saturday, May 19 @ 1:00pm PST - Medicine Hat @ Lewiston
Sunday, May 20 @ 1:30pm PST - Vancouver @ Lewiston
Monday, May 21 @ 5:00pm PST - Medicine Hat @ Plymouth
Tuesday, May 22 @ 5:00pm PST - Lewiston @ Plymouth
Wednesday, May 23 @ 7:30pm PST - Vancouver @ Medicine Hat
Thursday, May 24 @ 7:30pm PST - Tie Breaker Game (if required)
Friday, May 25 @ 5:00pm PST - Semi Final Game
Sun., May 27 @ 1:00pm PST - Championship Game
Most games will be carried by Rogers' Sportsnet in Canada. This looks to be a very good tournament, and I look forward to watching the action over the next eight days. Keep your eyes on the prize, and your sticks on the ice!