Monday, 25 May 2015

Rockets Blast Oceanic

Two winless teams met in Quebec City at the Pepsi Colisée on Monday night as the WHL's Kelowna Rockets and the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic were looking to square their 0-1 records at the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup. Honestly, only one team really showed up for tonight's game as the country was able to see the impressive offensive array of talent that the Rockets have put together this season. This was the Rockets squad that hammered the Brandon Wheat Kings in four-straight games in the WHL Championship series. Rimouski, however, looked nothing like the confident group they were a week ago after winning the QMJHL Championship, and the wheels came off after the first intermission.

The Rockets jumped out to a 3-0 before the game was fifteen minutes old on the strength of goals by Nick Merkley 52 seconds in, Madison Bowie at the 6:16 mark, and Gage Quinney at 14:27. The Oceanic, however, would respond with a pair of goals in the final five minutes of the period when Christopher Clapperton and Michael Joly on the power-play cut the deficit to one goal. It was expected that the Western Hockey League team would be the more physical of the two, but the Oceanic really took the body to the Rockets.

The second period saw the Rockets double their total as Gage Quinney added the fourth goal on the power-play at 1:52, Nick Merkley added another at 10:42, and Leon Draisaitl netted the sixth Kelowna goal at 13:18 for the 6-2 lead. Rimouski goaltender Louis-Philip Guindon wouldn't see the Draisaitl goal from the blue paint, however, as head coach Serge Beausoleil got out the hook after the fifth Kelowna goal, replacing Guindon with Philippe Desrosiers. The second period was a lot more physical than the first period, and the penalties in that period were of the chippy variety: hooking, kneeing, interference, cross-checking, fighting, slashing, and roughing. Between the two teams, they were giving the rule book a workout!

The third period was a lot of "just wrap this up" hockey, but the teams traded special teams goals as Frédérik Gauthier notched a power-play goal for the Oceanic to make it 6-3 before Leon Draisaitl scored a pretty goal while shorthanded to make it 7-3 which is how the game finished. Draisaitl, Nick Merkley, and Gage Quinney each scored twice while Madison Bowie had the other Rockets goal to go along with a pair of assists. Chris Clapperton, Michael Joly and Frédérik Gauthier had the Oceanic goals.

There's something to be said about Leon Draisaitl as it appears that having the Oilers send him back to junior is paying off for his career. He's scoring goals that are NHL-like in his driving to the net and his willingness to go to the high-traffic areas. He's playing extremely well without the puck, and has made his mark playing shorthanded as he killed Brandon with his shorthanded markers and is now doing the same in the Memorial Cup.

It's a little scary to think that Connor McDavid could play between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle next season while the improved Draisaitl could find a home on the second line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and possibly one of Anton Landon, Matt Hendricks, Benoit Pouliot, Teddy Purcell, or Nail Yakupov. Granted, the styles of those wingers may not fit with Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl who both have exceptional scoring touches, but Todd McLellan will have the final say there. Regardless of the decisions made, having McDavid and Draisaitl playing with confidence right out of training camp is a massive upgrade compared to last season.

Adding to Draisaitl's value in Edmonton will be his penalty-killing skills. Finding skilled guys who kill penalties as well as Draisaitl has in junior hockey is rare, and the Oilers should be putting that skill set higher than most others. While I'm not suggesting he'll be the next Jordan Staal or Patrice Bergeron, Draisaitl's ability to drive the net and score goals while shorthanded is something the Oilers desperately need. After all, the opposition can't score when it's fishing the puck out of the back of its own net. It was an effective strategy in the WHL, and I suspect that the Oilers may want to look at deploying this strategy once Draisaitl matures a little more physically.

It's almost as if - stop me if this has come up before - the Oilers are building their forward ranks as they did in the early 1980s with a young, dynamic superstar playmaker and goal-scorer followed by a big-bodied, bruising second-line centerman who can score goals and set up plays. While the Gretzky-Messier comparisons are entirely unfair at this point in their careers, the Oilers seemingly are getting two players who fit that mold once more. It's kind of exciting to think where the oilers may be in three or four years if the trajectory of McDavid and Draisaitl play out as expected.

Right now, though, only Draisaitl is playing hockey and if you're not watching the Mastercard Memorial Cup, you're missing out on a special player. While I wouldn't categorize him as a "generational talent" or any of those other cliché terms, he's vitally important to Kelowna's success at the Memorial Cup and he proved again tonight why he was the WHL's Playoff MVP.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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