For the first time since 2007, two teams from the United States competed in a duel at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Back then, the two teams were the Lewiston MAINEiacs (QMJHL) and the Plymouth Whalers (OHL).
Erie Otters (50-15-2-1) – 1st Overall standings (OHL) | 2nd CHL
Ontario hockey league champions, the Erie Otters are entering the 99th edition of the MasterCard Memorial Cup as one of the favorites to win this prestigious tournament. With a fourth consecutive 50+ season wins, the Otters are recognized as an offensive machine, an important factor that could shift the chances on their side.
The Otters’ playoff run were not as easy as the Sea Dogs’, except for the first qualifying round, where they went right through the Sarnia Sting in just four games, scoring 29 goals in the process.
The difficulty level rose rapidly in the round two, when Erie was to compete against the reigning J. Ross Robertson Trophy champions, as well as the 2016 Memorial Cup champions, the London Knights. An exciting series that required seven games. London, who had just come off a first round 3-1 series comeback against the Windsor Spitfires, seemed hardly exhausted and held out against the mighty Otters. Games 6 and 7 were the most exciting ones, each requiring extra time. In the seventh and final game, Warren Foegele, acquired at the trade deadline, lifted the roof of the Erie Insurance Arena, propelling the Otters into the semi-final with a 5-4 overtime win.
In the third round, the Otters faced the Owen Sound Attack, a team that finished just one point-shy of the regular-season champion Otters, with 102 points to be more accurate. Despite trailing 2-1 in the series, Erie’s attack got underway and found the way to beat the Attack three times in as many games, eliminating the small Ontario town in six games. It was the fourth time in a row that the Otters reached the Western Conference final, reaching the final on only one occasion in the past.
In the finals, the Otters competed against the Mississauga Steelheads, who finished the regular season in second place in the Eastern Conference by virtue of the Central Division title. A big order was waiting for the Steelheads, winners of their semi-final series against the Peterborough Petes, which they took them only in four games. Once again, the Otters found a way to dramatically conclude a series. This time, it was newcomer Anthony Cirelli, lining up with the Oshawa Generals earlier in the season, that ended the 2016-2017 OHL season. Cirelli concluded a historic comeback orchestrated by Taylor Raddysh, who scored a hat trick. In the game 5, the Otters trailed 3-0 before taking control of the game, thus ended in a 4-3 overtime victory, winning a second franchise title. Warren Foegele was named playoffs MVP with a series of high performances.
The Otters have eight players affiliated with an NHL team: Jordan Sambrook (Detroit Red Wings), Erik Cernak (Tampa Bay Lightning), Alex DeBrincat (Chicago Blackhawks), Kyle Pettit (Vancouver Canucks), Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay Lightning), Dylan Strome (ArizonaCoyotes), Anthony Cirelli (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Warren Foegele (Carolina Hurricanes).
With a 50-15-2-1 record, the Otters were ranked second in the CHL Top 10 Weekly Standings behind the Regina Pats. The Pennsylvania team will be participating in the second MasterCard Memorial Cup appearance.
Seattle Thunderbirds (46-20-4-2) – 4th Overall standings (WHL | 11th CHL
The Seattle Thunderbirds caused a surprise raising the Ed Chynoweth Cup on May 14th. The “T-Birds” worked hard and the team led by former NHLer Steve Konowalchuk secured a first WHL franchise title. A 40 year old organisation.
The Thunderbirds playoffs-run were full of pitfalls, especially in the second round. In first of business, in round one, the Washington State team face off against division rival, Tri-City Americans, which took them only four games to get rid off.
In the second round, the team faced the 2016 top CHL goaltender and silver medalist at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Carter Hart and the Everett Silvertips. Despite a quick four game-rout, each encounter ended with a one-goal gap, with the exception of game four, with the Silvertips running out of time. The turning point of the series? Game 3, where Mat Barzal scored his second goal of the game, propelling his team to a 5-4 overtime win.
Then came the semi-final, a déjà vu. A Kelowna Rockets, Thunderbirds matchup. A 2016 semi-final encounter, where Seattle came out victorious. Without any surprise, the result was the same, with a small difference. Last year, the Rockets were swept. This time, they offered a better opposition, bowing however in six games. After three rounds, the Thunderbirds had a 12-2 record, identical to the Sea Dogs in the QMJHL.
In the Grand Finale, Seattle competed against the Regina Pats. WHL regular season champions with 112 points, the Pats were clearly favorites, the latter being ranked first in the CHL Top 10 Weekly Standings. Trailing 2-1 in the series, the Thunderbirds attack woke up in the fourth clash, scoring six goals against goaltender Tyler Brown to win 6-1, tipping the series on their side. In a crazy game five, Seattle continued to produce offensively, this time winning 7-4. The team was now only one win of a first title. Back in Regina for a game 6, one chance, served on a silver platter settled in front of the Thunderbirds. After 60 minutes, the stalemate still persisted until Alexander True secured the Thunderbirds a first championship, scoring half-time in overtime. In addition, the team was able to overcome a two goal deficit, as they rallied, trailing 3-1 in the middle of the third frame. Co-captain Mathew Barzal was honoured for his playoff performances, named postseason MVP. Let’s note the brilliant performance of goaltender Carl Stankowski. At 17 years of age, the young goalie took the reins of the team, coming in relief of starting goaltender Rylan Toth, wounded at the end of the season. The Calgary, Alberta native finished the playoffs with a 16-4 record, with only seven games played in the regular season.
In comparison to the other three MasterCard Memorial Cup finalists, the Thunderbirds have only four players affiliated with an NHL team: Ethan Bear (Edmonton Oilers), Ryan Gropp (New York Rangers), Mathew Barzal (New York Islanders) and Keegan Kolesar (Columbus Blue Jackets).
Completing the recent campaign with a 46-20-4-2 record, the team finished fourth in the WHL Overall Standings and ranked among the honourable mentions in the CHL Top 10 Weekly Standings.
Game 2 will be presented at 3:00 pm ET on TVA Sports 2 and Sportsnet.
A text by Frédéric Damiani