Monday, 1 June 2015

The Champion Of The Champions

It was a great finish to the Canadian junior hockey scene on Sunday night as the OHL's Oshawa Generals downed the WHL's Kelowna Rockets 2-1 in overtime to win the Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament. The final two teams on Sunday were a contrast in style and roster as Oshawa used solid defence and scoring over the entire roster while the Rockets had a great offensive game and several high-profile stars who did a bunch of their scoring. If the adage of "defence wins championships" is entirely true, it could be why the Generals are the Memorial Cup champions today as they played an outstanding defensive game on Sunday.

17 year-old Anthony Cirelli saw his stock jump as he scored both of Oshawa's goals in the game, and became the second General to score the winning goal in overtime as he joins former defenceman Bill Armstrong in the history books. Cirelli, however, was an unlikely hero after scoring just twice in the OHL playoffs and just 13 times in the regular season. Like they've done all season, though, someone on the Generals' roster stepped up when needed.

"Words can't describe what I'm feeing now," Cirelli told The Canadian Press on the ice after the game. "Coming from midget hockey last year and making this team, then doing this... we worked so hard all season and to win it is unbelievable."

However, some would say that this team was destined for greater things after winning the OHL championship over the highly-touted Erie Otters and Connor McDavid. As Cirelli said, they worked hard all season and became the best defensive team in the Canadian Hockey League. It showed in how they shut down the high-flying Otters and followed it up by being the best defensive team at the Memorial Cup in allowing just nine goals in four games.

One of the big reasons for that defensive success? The undrafted goaltender between the pipes in Ken Appleby.

"Kenny's our MVP," top centre Cole Cassels told Ryan Pyette of the London Free Press. "That's all that matters to us."

While Appleby was named as the tournament's best goaltender, there was certainly a groundswell of support for the undrafted goaltender to be named the MVP, especially after shutting the door on the explosive Rockets twice. Appleby went 16-5 in the OHL playoffs including the 4-1 series victory over the Erie Otters, but that was just the first step in Oshawa's realization of a dream. In the Memorial Cup tournament, he went 4-0 as Oshawa won each game by a single goal. Appleby was, by all rights, a pretty important piece of this Generals' squad after getting his shot at owning the net after the 20 year-old served as North Bay's backup in the previous seasons.

"The guys bailed me out all this season, they bailed me out in this tournament so I knew I had to be there for them tonight," Appleby told Sportsnet's Rob Faulds in a post game interview. I'd say he did a pretty spectacular job in helping his team win the championship!

While scoring was done by committee and defence was an all-hands-on-deck approach, make no mistake that head coach DJ Smith is on the radar in the NHL after putting together this championship squad. Remember that this team had no players on a World Junior Championship roster, a former back-up, overaged goaltender as their starting netminder, and a team that was ranked at or near the top of the CHL rankings all year long. Smith proved that a team playing a solid system with a commitment to defence can beat some of the country's best teams on any given night. Or twice in the league's biggest tournament. Or four times in five tries against the highest-scoring team in their own league.

Smith, however, is no stranger to championships. He served as the assistant coach on the 2010 Windsor Spitfires team that captured the Memorial Cup, the last time an OHL team won the tournament. He was hired in 2012 by Oshawa General Manager Jeff Twohey who, at the time, stated, "DJ is one of the bright young minds of coaching in the OHL. He is a passionate young coach that lives and breathes the game. His passion as well as the demands he will put on our players will help create a positive identity and bring long term success to the Oshawa Generals. I am excited to add DJ to our staff and look forward to working with him in bringing success to the Oshawa Generals."

I'd say his faith in Smith was well-founded after Sunday's championship.

Congratulations to the 2015 Mastercard Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals! If there was one team who defined the term "team game" all season long, the Oshawa Generals were that team and to the victors go the spoils!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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