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2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup: Here we are

There were 48 teams. Now they are only four.

On March 23rd, the Canadian Hockey League kicked off the post-season playoffs and, after more than 300 playoff games, we now know the identity of the four teams who will compete in a round robin tournament in hope to hoist the most prestigious junior hockey trophy: the MasterCard Memorial Cup.

The Windsor Spitfires (Hosts/OHL), Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL), Erie Otters (OHL) and Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL).

Host spotlight

For the 99th edition of the MasterCard Memorial Cup, we now head to Windsor, Ontario, where the Spitfires will be hosting the event for the second time in their history, a first since 1981. Champions on three occasions (1981, 2009, 2010), Rocky Thompson’s squad will try to add a first title since 2010, back when the team won a second consecutive national championship. The Spitfires are featured in the MasterCard Memorial Cup Record Book as one of eight teams to win two consecutive titles; in 2009 in Rimouski, Quebec and the following year in Brandon, Manitoba.

The Spitfires’ 2016-2017 campaign ended abruptly with a first round knockout in seven games against the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup champions, the London Knights. The Spitfires had a 3-1 series lead in their Western Conference quarterfinal series, before seeing the Knights making the comeback and winning the next three games. Despite the early exit, it will serve as a motivation for the Ontario team, with more than a dozen NHL-affiliated players, including two from the Montreal Canadiens in Mikhail Sergachev and Jeremiah Addison. The team holds one of the most coveted players in the next NHL entry draft in Gabriel Vilardi, ranked 4th amongst North American skater by the Central Scouting Office. In addition, the lineup also listed Toronto Maple Leafs prospect and gold medalist at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, Jeremy Bracco, and “Outstanding Player” status defenseman, Sean Day.

The Spitfires will be able to benefit from returning defenseman Logan Stanley, who has been sitting out since January 17. At 18 years old, the Waterloo, Ont. native, received the go-ahead by the doctors to resume action at the start of the tournament. Limited to 35 games this season following a knee injury, the Winnipeg Jets’ first round pick, 18th overall, collected four goals and 13 assists for a total of 17 points.

The Spits’ will begin the tournament against the winners of the 2017 QMJHL Rogers President’s Cup, the Saint John Sea Dogs this Friday.

Sweeping everything in their path

Voted third overall in the weekly CHL Top 10 rankings, the QMJHL champions, the Saint John Sea Dogs, will look to continue on their hot streak. With a 16-2 record in the playoffs, the Sea Dogs swept everything in their way, allowing them to win a third President Cup since their arrival in 2005 as an expansion team, deserving their place in the prestigious tournament for the third time in their history, after two consecutive appearances in 2011 and 2012. Of the two editions, 2011 was the crowned one, as the club won the championship in Mississauga with an all-star lineup such as: Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu and Zack Phillips. After the coronation, the QMJHL won two consecutive MasterCard Memorial Cup titles with the Shawinigan Cataractes in 2012 and the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013, becoming the second league after the WHL, to win three consecutive national championships.

The 2016-2017 season proved to be another successful one in the young history of the franchise. The team reached the 100-point mark for the fourth time since 2005, concluding the most recent campaign with a 48-14-5-1 record, good for 102 points. This year, the Sea Dogs were an all offensive team, which had by the end of the season, seven players with more than 50 points: Highmore (34-55–89), Joseph (36-44–80), Smallman (17-36–53), Gauthier (17-34–51), and Noel (24-26–50). To date, Saint John has exactly 12 players affiliated to an NHL team, the highest total among CHL clubs. During the holiday season, General Manager Trevor Georgie secured winger Julien Gauthier, defenseman Simon Bourque and goaltender Callum Booth. Three players who played an important role in the playoffs, becoming centerpieces that allowed the team to go all the way. Thomas Chabot will be one of the key players for the Sea Dogs as he concludes an extraordinary season: silver medalist at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, tournament MVP, top defenseman honours at the Golden Puck Awards and named most valuable player in the playoffs. Since his time with the Ottawa Senators early in the season, all eyes are on him.

It remains to be seen if the Sea Dogs can maintain the momentum, with only two losses in the recent playoffs. Danny Flynn’s team will begin their tournament against the hosts, the Windsor Spitfires on Friday.

Hailing from America

Since the 2013-2014 season, the Erie Otters remains a constant threat in the OHL. In four seasons, the team reached the Conference finals four times and landed in the grand final on two separate occasions. The Otters defeated defending OHL and 2016 Memorial Cup champions London Knights, in a dramatic Game 7 overtime. This is a first MasterCard Memorial Cup presence since 2002 and a second in the team’s history. Last week, the Erie Otters became the fourth US team to lift the J. Ross Robertson Trophy, handed to OHL champions. Located in the state of Pennsylvania, the Otters succeeded to the Detroit Junior Red Wings (1995), the 2002 Erie Otters and the Plymouth Whalers (2007), as US based winning clubs.

The American team had an amazing 2016-2017 season, moving into history becoming the first CHL team to register four consecutive seasons with 50 or more wins. The Tampa Bay Lightning prospect, Taylor Raddysh, proved to be a nice surprise this season, but it’s Chicago Blackhawks prospect, Alex DeBrincat who stole the show with his many accomplishments. The 19-year-old forward was dominant, scoring 65 goals while becoming the first player since Dale McCourt to record three consecutive 50+ goals seasons. The Farmington Hills native, Michigan, concluded the season with 62 helpers and 127 points, catching the Eddie Powers Memorial trophy as leading scorer for a second consecutive year. At the trade deadline, the Otters notched two forwards who became spark plugs during the spring tournament: Anthony Cirelli (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Warren Foegele (Carolina Hurricanes). Foegele collected 13 goals and as many assists in 22 playoffs. He was the recipient of the Wayne Gretzky ’99’ trophy, awarded to the OHL playoffs MVP. For Cirelli, he completes the postseason with 31 points including the overtime winner in Game 5 against the Mississauga Steelheads.

The OHL could be crowning a third consecutive MasterCard Memorial Cup champion for the first time, a feat that was already achieved by the QMJHL and the WHL. The Otters will start the tournament against the WHL champions this Saturday, facing the Seattle Thunderbirds.

From runner-up to champion

Difficult to counter a team when everything works at full speed. This is the story this US team wrote in the recent postseason playoffs. For the ThunderBirds, this is a first title in for the organisation’s 40 year-run, and of course, a first ticket to Windsor and the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup. In fact, this is the second time the team will participate in the championship festivities. Seattle served as hosts for the MasterCard Memorial Cup tournament in 1992.

After dropping the final series against the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2016, the US franchise did everything to avoid repeating the mistakes last year, lifting the Ed Chynoweth Cup for the first time in the franchise’s history. The “T-Birds” 2016-2017 campaign was crowned with ups and downs until the last leg of the season. Overager Ryan Gropp led the Thunderbirds in the absence of Mathew Barzal, who had a busy season, starting the year with the New York Islanders. In December, Barzal left to join the Canadian junior team at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, returning with a silver medal around his neck. Defenseman Ethan Bear was solid at the blue-line, reaching the 70-point mark, as well as scoring 14 power-play goals. Carl Stankowski’s revelation in the playoffs is what draws attention. The 17-year-old goaltender came into relieve of team’s No. 1 goalie, Rylan Toth, who was sidelined by an injury. Stankowski, who ran a record of 16-4 in the playoffs, took part in only seven games in the regular season, posting a 3-0-0-1 record.

The Thunderbirds will try to give the WHL a first MasterCard Memorial Cup title since the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2014. The latter ended a seven-year drought as the last conquest dated back in 2007, won by the Vancouver Giants. Seattle will start its tournament against the Erie Otters this weekend.

A text by Frédéric Damiani

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