Memorial Cup promises wide-open field

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The tournament deciding the best team in junior hockey gets underway on Friday night as the Memorial Cup gets ready to celebrate its 100th year.

The year’s edition offers no top-ranked team from the OHL, QMJHL or WHL. It’s the first time that’s happened since 2002. 

The Hamilton Bulldogs, Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Swift Current Broncos all defeated the best in their respective leagues to book a spot in the Memorial Cup.

Back in 1919, the Regina Patricia took part in the first-ever iteration of the tournament, losing to the University of Toronto Schools in a two-game series.

Fast forward 100 years, and another team from Regina will be fighting for junior hockey supremacy in Canada. But this time, they go by a different name.

The Regina Pats are set to host the 100th Memorial Cup for the first time since 2001, and they’ll be looking for revenge after an early playoff exit this season.​

History repeating itself?

Last season, the Windsor Spitfires found themselves in a similar position.

The host Spitfires lost a seven-game heavyweight series to the London Knights in the first round of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs.

But after almost a month off, they dominated the Memorial Cup tournament, winning all three games in the round robin before dispatching of the OHL champion Erie Otters in the final.

The Windsor Spitfires defeated the Erie Otters to win the Memorial Cup in 2017. (Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)

This year, the Pats will be looking to follow suit. Not unlike their predecessors, they lost in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs to eventual champion Swift Current Broncos in seven games.

If the Pats can pull out a tournament victory in front of the home crowd, they’ll tie the Oshawa Generals for most Memorial Cup championships with five. They’ve been in the Memorial Cup a record 16 times, but haven’t won since 1974.

The Pats are led by WHL player of the year Sam Steel, who topped the team in regular-season scoring with 83 points in 54 games. The Anaheim Ducks first rounder won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2018 world junior hockey championships, and he’ll need to call on his experience if the rested Pats hope to have a chance.

But playing in front of the home crowd won’t hurt.

Broncos looking to spoil parade again

Meanwhile, the Broncos enter their fourth Memorial Cup after defeating the top-seeded Everett Silvertips in six games in the Western Hockey League championship series. They’ve hoisted the trophy just once, back in 1989.

The Broncos are led by WHL playoff MVP and captain Glenn Gawdin, who led the team in scoring throughout the regular season and playoffs. The Calgary Flames signee will be looking to lead the team back to junior hockey supremacy. He’s played his entire junior career with the Broncos.

But the real X-factor for the Broncos could be goaltender Stuart Skinner. Amassing an incredible six playoff shutouts this post-season, the Edmonton Oilers’ third-rounder was fantastic down the stretch, going 16-8-2 with a 2.20 GAA and .932 save percentage in the playoffs.

Swift Current had the second-best record in the WHL this season, eclipsed only by a Moose Jaw Warriors team that it  beat in seven games in the second round. If Skinner plays the way he did in the Broncos’ fantastic playoff run, this will be a tough team to beat.

1st time’s the charm?

While the West teams have quite a few Memorial Cup appearances under their belt, for the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs, this will be their first kick at the can.

Only three years removed from a relocation that brought the Belleville Bulls to Hamilton, the Bulldogs put together an excellent regular season, winning 43 games en route to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

They dispatched both the Ottawa 67s and Niagara Ice Dogs in five games before getting revenge on a Kingston Frontenacs team that beat them in seven games in the first round last season.

The real challenge for the Bulldogs was the powerhouse Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who put together a stellar 55-7-6 regular season en route to a .853 winning percentage.

The Greyhounds, the OHL’s top regular-season team with 116 points, were loaded at all ends of the rink; Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay), Boris Katchouk (Tampa Bay), Morgan Frost (Philadelphia) and Conor Timmins (Colorado) rounded out a team with 10 NHL draft picks.

But the Bulldogs refused to be intimidated by the Soo, who needed seven games to beat both the Owen Sound Attack and Kitchener Rangers in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The Bulldogs beat the Greyhounds in six games, making a third-period comeback in front of the home fans to capture their first OHL Championship.

General manager Steve Staios deserves a lot of credit for bringing superstar Robert Thomas over from the London Knights at the trade deadline. Thomas was invaluable for the ‘Dogs, leading the team in post-season scoring with 32 points in 21 games and earning playoff MVP honours. The St. Louis Blues first-round selection will almost certainly have a spot reserved for him in the National Hockey League next season.

The Bulldogs are no slouch, with nine NHL draft picks of their own. Full of speed offensively, with a solid defensive core and great goaltending in Detroit Red Wings prospect Kaden Fulcher, the Bulldogs have just as good a chance as anybody in their first Memorial Cup.

Titan looking for better showing

The Acadie-Bathurst Titan round out the competition after an excellent Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoff run.

The Titan were clinical, losing just two games in the first three rounds of the post-season. Both of those losses came to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the first round. Neither Sherbrooke nor Victoriaville could win a game against this team in the enusing rounds.

The top-seeded Blainville-Boisbriand Armada posed more of a challenge in the QMJHL championship series, but it wasn’t enough. The Titan took six games to win the President Cup and book their ticket to Regina.

Acadie-Bathurst is an extremely balanced team, with no one player driving the offence. They boasted the best goaltender stats-wise in the playoffs; Evan Fitzpatrick finished 16-4 with an impressive 2.10 GAA in the post-season.

Defenceman Noah Dobson leads the way from the back end; the Summerside, P.E.I., native is an expected top-10 pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.

Captain Jeffrey Truchon-Viel powers the offence up front; the recently signed San Jose Sharks prospect led the Titan in scoring with 23 points in 20 games in the playoffs, earning him the Guy Lafleur Trophy as QMJHL playoff MVP.

The Titan have only reached the Memorial Cup one time in their history, back in 1999. The team struggled, losing all three games in the tournament.

Acadie-Bathurst is hoping to have better luck this time around. The team wants bring a Memorial Cup back to the East Coast for the first time since Nathan MacKinnon led the Halifax Mooseheads to the promised land in 2013.

Honouring Humboldt

The tournament kicks off with the ‘Centennial Salute’ on Thursday night. The production will feature live performances by Brent Butt, Jess Moskaluke, Chad Brownlee and a special musical tribute to the Humboldt Broncos hockey team, featuring Jack Semple and the Regina Symphony.

The tournament opens on Friday at the Brandt Centre in Regina, with the Bulldogs facing off against the hometown Pats.

The Canadian Hockey League champion will be crowed in the final game of the tournament on Sunday, May 27.


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