Friday, 16 May 2008

The Cup In Kitchener

The 2008 Mastercard CHL Memorial Cup tournament starts this weekend in Kitchener, Ontario, and I am looking forward to some amazing major junior hockey games. Kitchener, the host town for the event, is an excellent junior hockey town, and they support their team as well as any other CHL town in the country. Along with the hometown Rangers, Kitchener will welcome the OHL finalist in the Belleville Bulls, the WHL champions in the Spokane Chiefs, and the QMJHL champions in the Gatineau Olympiques. The top two teams in the CHL are represented, while a dark horse from Quebec joins the party. Let's take a look at these great teams.

QMJHL Champions - Gatineau Olympiques
The Olympiques weren't favoured to emerge from the highly-competitive QMJHL, but they put together a great playoff run to win their third QMJHL title in six years. Canadian World Junior Championship star Claude Giroux is the spark plug on this team, and his line, along with Paul Byron and Matthew Pistilli, scored at an incredible pace throughout the QMJHL playoffs. Giroux appeared in two NHL games this season with the Flyers, so you know the talent he has. Their line scored an incredible 29 goals in the five games against Rouyn-Noranda in the QMJHL final, thanks to a great transition game and some clutch goal-scoring. Giroux was named the MVP of the QMJHL playoffs after scoring 17 goals and 34 assists for 51 points in only 19 games. Goaltender Ryan Mior hasn't shown an elite level of play, but it steady in the net. If there is one key weakness on the Olympiques, it might be between the pipes as Mior is solid, but not spectacular.

WHL Champion - Spokane Chiefs
The Spokane Chiefs come into the Memorial Cup win the second-most wins this season, trailing only the host team from Kitchener. Unlike the other three teams, Spokane relied on solid defence to help them win their championship. Where the Chiefs may benefit is that they had to go through some incredibly talented teams to win the WHL championship. They are battle-tested, and look ready to make their league proud. Mitch Wahl, Chris Bruton, Drayson Bowman, Ondrej Roman, Judd Blackwater, and David Rutherford are the names who will appear on the scoresheet most often for Spokane, but they are solid and have balanced scoring right through their lineup. They are gritty in their own end, and will play with a bit of a chip on their shoulders. Goaltender Dustin Tokarski was spectacular through the WHL playoffs, and will need to reproduce those efforts to win the Memorial Cup. The one factor that the other three teams may expose is the lack of size on the defensive unit from Spokane. Spokane will need to stay out of the penalty box if they want to keep their smaller defencemen from being punished by the bigger Ontario League forwards.

OHL Finalist - Belleville Bulls
The Bulls come into the Memorial Cup after having spent the better part of their last two weeks in Kitchener. Belleville lost in seven games to the Rangers, but they shouldn't look at this negatively. Both the Vancouver Giants in 2007 and the Quebec Remparts in 2006 won the Memorial Cup after having lost their league championships. The Bulls, however, shouldn't be taken lightly. After being down 3-0 in their series against Kitchener, the Bulls rallied to win the next three game before losing Game Seven. Canadian World Junior team member P.K. Subban will be looked to for offence, but the Bulls appear to be missing a sniper to which they can turn when they need a goal. However, goaltender Mike Murphy, the OHL's goaltender of the year, provides excellent goaltending, and the defence is an excellent shutdown unit. If the Bulls are down by a goal late, though, it is tough to pick one player out as a go-to-guy for a goal. That may be their eventual downfall in this tournament.

OHL Champion and Host - Kitchener Rangers
The Kitchener Rangers come in as the favourite on paper as they led the Canadian Hockey League in wins this season. This team is strong, fast, and deep. Justin Azevedo won both the playoff and regular season scoring crowns this season, and was named the OHL's Most Outstanding Player. His linemates, Nick Spaling and Canadian World Junior team member Matt Halischuk, make for a formidable scoring line, and they have incredible speed and scoring touch as displayed throughout the season. Halischuk is also a fabulous defensive forward, and can do as much in the defensive zone as the offensive zone. Mikkel Boedker, Nazem Kadri and fan favourite Mike Duco provide a pile of secondary scoring, and will be counted on to score as many goals as possible. Between the pipes, the Rangers boast World Junior MVP Steve Mason, but he has been out for over a month with a torn ligament in his left knee. However, Josh Unice, the Rangers' "backup", has performed incredibly well since Mason went down, and will be relied upon if Mason can't go in the Memorial Cup tournament. Kitchener lost defencemen Yannick Weber, their power-play quarterback, to a wrist injury, although he is apparently going to play. What does this mean? Teams will most likely be physical with the depleted defensive unit in order to wear them down. This may be the one hole that can be exploited in the Rangers' dangerous arsenal of weapons.

Personally, this is anyone's tournament. Gatineau is playing extremely well; Spokane is looking to build on their fabulous run through the WHL; Belleville would like to stick it to Kitchener by winning the Memorial Cup in Kitchener after losing the OHL final; and Kitchener has a ton of pride to play for, and a Memorial Cup to win.

My prediction? I'm going with Kitchener. Three of the last four Memorial Cup champions were the host team, and the Rangers are, statistically, the best team in the CHL. Will I be right? Only time will tell.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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