Three leagues, four teams, ten days, one title: the Memorial Cup

The 2012 Memorial Cup tournament will be played in Shawinigan, Quebec.

After another exciting and story-filled season of major junior hockey, four teams are now preparing to do battle for the Canadian League’s most prestigious title: the Memorial Cup.

Hosted by the Quebec’s Shawinigan Cataractes, the “Mem Cup” will also feature the defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs (also of the QMJHL), the OHL-champion London Knights, and last but certainly not least, the WHL-champion Edmonton Oil Kings.

While each team has battled through gruelling regular and post-seasons to earn its berth in the 10-day national championship tournament, the biggest test has yet to come. The four teams will each square-off in a round robin tournament beginning May 18 in Shawinigan, Quebec. (For more on the structure of the tournament, check out @TimKolupan_‘s Finer Points column on the Memorial Cup.)

Coincidental Minors‘ Alberta-based executive editor, Jeff Blay, will provide some background on the Edmonton Oil Kings, while Montreal-based contributor Justin Shemie will take both the Cataractes and Sea Dogs, and Ottawa-based contributor Chris Messina will cover the London Knights, making up our 2012 Memorial Cup preview.

QMJHL:

– Saint John Sea Dogs

Well here we are again; the QMJHL playoffs have come to a close and the Saint John Sea Dogs can now say they are the league’s champions for two years and counting.

Saint John made a fool of Cape Breton in the first round, sweeping the Screaming Eagles while maintaining a minimum of a four-goal difference in all four games. Things didn’t change much in the second and third rounds, as the Sea Dogs also swept the Baie-Comeau Drakkar before defeating the Chicoutimi Sagueneen’s in five games to clinch a spot in the QMJHL Final.

Despite great playoff success, the surprising Rimouski Oceanic turned out to be no match for ‘Dogs captain Jonathan Huberdeau and his squad as they completed their third sweep of the 2012 playoffs, becoming the first team to win back-to-back President Cup’s since the Hull/Gatineau Olympiques in 2003 and 2004.

Essentially all Sea Dogs players have contributed in one way or another, and goaltender Mathieu Corbeil has posted a respectable .917 save percentage and 2.18 goals against average in the playoffs thus far.

While Saint John has certainly made a legitimate case for a Mem Cup repeat, if the team wants to win another championship, there are several keys that will factor in to their success.

Secondary Scoring: A lot of attention will be drawn to players such as Huberdeau, Stanislav Galiev, Zach Phillips and Charlie Coyle throughout the tournament. Especially against three of the nation’s top teams, the Sea Dogs can’t rely solely on the their top forwards. Stephen Macaulay, Aidan Kelly and Maxim Villemaire are among those that will need to step up. They will also need their top offensive-defensemen Nathan Beaulieu, Kevin Gagne and Charles Olivier-Roussel to continue their offensive success.

Leadership: Jonathan Huberdeau has 21 points in 15 games in this years playoffs. Not bad by any stretch, but considering he’s only fifth in team scoring, the captain and Florida Panthers’ first rounder could certainly set some goals for himself and step up to be the superstar he was in 2011.

Difference Maker: Charlie Coyle is the newest addition to a talented Saint John team and definitely one of the most skilled. Joining the Sea Dogs after a stint with Boston University (NCAA) and two World Junior Championships with the U.S., Coyle tied Galiev for the QMJHL playoff scoring crown with a pace of two points per game and will need to continue that play in the round robin.

– Shawinigan Cataractes

The hosting Cataractes aren’t as talented as the Sea Dogs but will definitely put up a fight against their three opponents. In my opinion, they are similar to the Nashville Predators of the NHL. They have two goaltenders they can depend on in Alex Dubeau and Gabriel Girard – similar to Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback.

They have great defense with 19-year-olds Brandon Gormley and Morgan Ellis (both acquired in trades). Up front, like Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn in Nashville, they have two talented wingers in Anton Zlobin (2012 draft eligible) and Kirill Kabanov, who have both been very good offensively. Michael Chaput, Michael Bournival and Yannick Veilleux will also be expected to carry the offensive load.

The Cataractes come into this tournament being the underdog, which is understandable since they are the only team in the tournament that isn’t the champion of their respective league. Nonetheless, they will definitely give the other teams a run for there money. Here are the keys to their success.

Consistent Goaltending: Shawinigan has two decent goaltenders in 20-year-old Gabriel Girard and 16-year-old Alex Dubeau, although inconsistency in nets has been a problem at times for the men manning Shawinigan’s net. There have been games where they have allowed six or seven goals when it mattered most (in the playoffs) and it cost them.

Solid Defense: Newest acquisitions Morgan Ellis and Brandon Gormley will have to bring forth their A-Games and lead the way for the Cats. Up to his point, they have both been great solidifying the top two on the blueline. They will be given a lot of minutes and thrown into key situations throughout the tournament and will certainly be counted on to lead the backend against some explosive opponents.

Difference Maker: Captain Michael Bournival will have to put this team on his shoulders and lead by example. A 2011 Canadian World Junior member, Bournival’s  quickness, smarts and shot have taken him a long way in hockey. He is great with and without the puck and plays the penalty kill and power play. He always keeps defensemen guessing and has the potential to contribute in all areas for Shawinigan, who will certainly need him at the top of his game come May 18.

Final Thought: Of the two teams, Saint John gets my nod because of their experience, skill and depth. Despite losing a few players from last years Memorial Cup they have added offensive juggernaut Charlie Coyle and Charles-Olivier Roussel, who has been one of there most important defensemen this season. No other team in this tournament has as many assets as the Sea Dogs – it’s as simple as that. – Justin Shemie

OHL:

– London Knights

The London Knights are heading to the Memorial Cup hot. They are winners of 11 of their last 12 playoff games – a streak that started after back-to-back losses to the Saginaw Spirit in the second round of the OHL playoffs, which put the Knights down 2-1 in the series.

The Spirit won games two and three (both by scores of 5-2), but the Knights made a statement in Game 4 and answered with a 5-2 victory of their own. Since then, they have virtually been unbeatable. They swept the third seed Kitchener Rangers with four convincing victories in the Western Conference Final before taking care of the Niagara Ice Dogs in five games to win their first OHL Championship since 2006.

London Knights goalie Michael Houser was rock solid for the team throughout the OHL playoffs and will certainly play a big role as the Knights’ vie for another Memorial Cup title. (Joel Smith Photography)

The Knights’ success starts in net with Michael Houser – the OHL’s Goalie of the Year and Most Outstanding Player of the Year. After playing between the pipes for 62 of 68 regular season games and being at or near the top of most categories for goalie statistics, he’s continued to roll throughout the playoffs with 16-3 recorded, a 2.25 goals against average and .928 save percentage. Not bad for a kid who’s been passed over twice in the NHL draft.

Upfront they are very well balanced. In 19 playoff games, 17 different players chipped in with a goal. Led by Montreal Canadiens first rounder Jarred Tinordi, the Knights deep blue line has various attributes that work well with the overall structure of the team.

The Knights will be looking for their first national title since 2005 and will have Dale Hunter back from the Washington Capitals, though he won’t be behind the bench as he was before replacing Bruce Boudreau in the U.S. capital.

Looking up and down the line-up, it’s tough to find a weakness for this team. Heck, they just made it look easy against a team that had 12 NHL draft picks on their roster – a number that is almost unheard of in junior hockey. That said, they will certainly have to play at their highest potential if they want to defeat three of Canada’s top teams. Here are the keys to London’s success.

Strong Two-Way Defense: 2012 draft eligible Olli Maatta has helped provide offense from the backend. After a good regular season, Maatta was on fire in the playoffs and tied for the team lead in scoring with 23 points in 19 games. Veterans Jarred Tinordi, Scott Harrington and Tyler Ferry have also provided offense from the blue line, and they’ll need to continue to do so against some high-powered offensive opponents.

Improved Play of Veterans: London acquired Austin Watson and Greg McKegg prior to the trade deadline and while both players have contributed, playing well at both ends of the rink, the pair will need to up their anti during the Mem Cup. Watson has played well and already has a Memorial Cup title under his belt as a member of the 2009 Windsor Spitfires. McKegg still provided some offense (11 points) despite missing several games with an ‘upper body injury,’ but now that he’s back, he will need to contribute more. If the older players work hard, it’s a trickle down effect that can only benefit the already dangerous young core.

Difference Maker: The undrafted 19-year-old Seth Griffith, who led the team in scoring during the regular season and tied Maatta with 23 playoff points, has the power to make or break games. However, maybe the best sign for London was a breakout series for 17-year-old Ryan Rupert, who scored four goals against Niagara in the OHL Final. Both young guns have come up big for London throughout the regular and postseason, and definitely have the skill to get the job done when their team needs it most.

Final Thought: This is a team without many holes and heading into this season, many thought the Knights were still one year away from peaking, but after a very strong start they decided to go for it. For London, their time is shine is now. – Chris Messina

WHL:

– Edmonton Oil Kings

While the Saint John Sea Dogs may be the frontrunners to win the title, the Oil Kings have to be a close second. After a stunning 107-point league-leading regular season, Edmonton’s current pride and joy has has continued that success well into the playoffs, sweeping both the Kootenay Ice and Brandon Wheat Kings, while giving up just one game to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the Conference Final.

It’s not always best to head into such an elite tournament going untested, but luckily the Portland Winterhawks gave the ‘Kings a tough go in the WHL Final, forcing them to seven games and challenging their stability.

Led by rookie Curtis Lazar (whom I had pegged as outstanding earlier in the postseason), the Oil Kings’ offense has been almost as impressive as their defense – scary. Lazar’s eight goals and 19 points have him tied in team scoring with one of this year’s 100-plus point scorer, Michael St. Croix.

On defense, captain Mark Pysyk has led by example and not only picked up his offensive play, but also remained a rock on the backend throughout the playoffs. Not to mention the play of top NHL

Griffin Reinhart

prospect Griffin Reinhart (two goals, eight points, plus-14), ’93-born rookie Martin Gerant (seven goals, 13 points, plus-8) and Keegan Lowe (three goals, seven points, plus-13). Goaltender Laurent Brossoit had a stellar playoffs as well, boasting a 2.04 goals against and .933 save percentage, and will need to continuing playing with confidence as the team enters a tournament full of flashy goal scorers.

While it’s hard to find blemishes on any team competing in the Memorial Cup, Edmonton is certainly looking like the Sea Dogs’ top competition, but will have to remain focused in order to get the job done. Here are the key’s to the Oil Kings’ success.

Depth: In 20 WHL playoff games, the Oil Kings had 11 players who contributed 10 or more points, while each team member who played over 10 games scored at least two or more points – that includes goaltender Laurent Brossoit, who notched two assists. Not that Brossoit will be counted on in that department whatsoever, but maintaining that overall scoring depth and getting contributions from four lines as well as the defesnive core will be key for Edmonton as they face some strong opponents in the round robin.

Veteran Contributions: Much like the OHL’s London Knights, the Oil Kings youngsters have really broken out in the postseason and carried much of the offensive load. While Lazar, St. Croix, Gerant and Henrik Samuelsson will all be counted upon to continue leading the way, it’s also important for the team’s veterans to step up in various ways to take some of the pressure of the youngsters. Tyler Maxwell finished third in team playoff scoring and will be a key figure throughout the tournament, while Jordan Peddle, Rhett Rachinski, TJ Foster and Mark Pysyk will all need to continue their solid two-way play. If the vets can contribute secondary offense, play well defensively and on the penalty kill, it will give the talented youngins more space and time to work their magic.

Difference Maker: His name has been mentioned already in this preview and he’s also earned some attention in the Edmonton media, so it should come as no surprise the difference maker for the Oil Kings is none other than captain Mark Pysyk. A rock on defense, Pysyk has also played very well on the blueline and has been the team’s second best defensive point-getter, also just one two of Oil Kings to notch a shorthanded goal in the postseason. His leadership, physicality, and solid two-way play has been crucial towards the team’s success this season and he will certainly be counted upon to play big minutes as the team vies for its first Memorial Cup title since the original Oil Kings franchise won two in 1962-63 and 1965-66.

Final Thought: The Oil Kings certainly have a legitimate shot at the title. Physical and defensive, yet skilled and energetic, Edmonton has arguably the most balanced team competing in the tournament. Of all four teams, Edmonton was given the toughest test in the seven game WHL Final series with Portland, so facing that adversity and gaining that additional bid of confidence heading into the Mem Cup may give them a slight edge. – Jeff Blay

Click here for the full Memorial Cup schedule.

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