With all the justified hype surrounding the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, this year’s Memorial Cup has been flying under the radar, but need not worry, because despite a highly spirited and entertaining tournament thus far; the best has yet to come. This Sunday, the tournament host Ontario Hockey League champion Kitchener Rangers will do battle with the Western Hockey League champion Spokane Chiefs, in what promises to be a compelling match-up.
ROAD TO THE FINALS
Kitchener eased their way through the first three rounds of the Ontario Hockey League playoffs, sweeping the Plymouth Whalers and Steven Stamkos’ Sarnia Sting in the first and second round respectively, and defeating the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in five games during the Conference Finals. Conversely, the Belleville Bulls were a worthy opponent in the OHL Finals, coming back from a 3-0 deficit and taking the Rangers to game seven, however, being unable to seal the deal.
Kitchener opened up the Memorial Cup with a dramatic 6-5 overtime win against the Quebec Hockey League champion Gatineau Olympiques. After giving up two different three-goal leads, Justin Azevado netted the OT winner for the Rangers. Next, Kitchener experienced Spokane’s defensive oriented system first hand in what proved to be a Memorial Cup Final preview. Spokane goaltender Dustin Tokarski turned in a fantastic performance, helping his Chiefs triumph as 2-1 winners. Kitchener’s final round-robin match versus the Belleville Bulls presented a bizarre scenario, as both teams were already aware that they would be facing each other once again in the semi-finals two days later. Despite the apparent insignificance of the match, neither team let up as Belleville’s Keaton Turkiewicz potted the game winning goal for the Bulls in a 4-3 win overtime win.
Meeting for the 9th time in less than four weeks, Kitchener rolled over Belleville in Friday’s semi-final match-up by a final count of 9-0, as each member of its top line recorded 5 points apiece. The win drew several comparisons to Vancouver’s 8-1 semi-final in last year’s tournament; before they went on to capture the title as tournament hosts.
Heading into the Western Hockey League playoffs as the 3rd seed in the Western Conference, the Chiefs went on to sweep the Everett Silvertips in the opening round, before upsetting the defending Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants in the second round, and the 1st seed Tri-City Americans in the Conference Finals. The Lethbridge Hurricanes were unable to solve Spokane’s stingy defensive game in the WHL Finals as the Chiefs prevailed with a dominating 4-0 series win.
In their tournament opener, the Chiefs proved that they were more than just a defensive team, as they defeated the Belleville Bulls 5-4 in overtime; Levko Kopper netted the winner. Following their 2-1 win against the Rangers, Spokane clinched first place with a convincing 3-1 win versus Claude Giroux and the Gatineau Olympiques.
WHO TO WATCH
Mikkel Boedker #89: Boedker – who is currently ranked seventh among North American Skaters by Central Scouting – will surely be a top 10 pick at the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. This Danish winger is coming off a sensational rookie season with the Rangers, where he finished in team scoring behind Justin Azevado. At 5’11, Boedker possesses a “Crosby-like” lower body which is demonstrated with his blazing speed and inability for opponents to push him off the puck. Plays the point on the first power-play unit, due to his stellar offensive instincts and lethal slap shot.
Justin Azevado #15: Azevado beat out John Tavares and Steven Stamkos – among others – as the leading point getter in the OHL this season. Azevado possesses great vision and deceptive speed, but remains un-drafted as a nineteen year old, in large part due to his 5’8 stature. Currently leads the tournament in scoring with 11 points in 4 games, and will definitely draw interest from several NHL teams this summer.
Matt Halischuk #18: New Jersey’s 4th round pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Halischuk brings the entire package. Possesses great leadership, work ethic and energy, in addition to his offensive game which has significantly improved over the past few seasons playing alongside Azevado. Scored Canada’s gold medal clincher in overtime at the recent World Junior Hockey Championships. Halischuk will undoubtedly be a contributor at the next level, but if he will slot in as a top six forward or as simply a role player remains to be seen.
Jared Cowen #2: Cowen – who is expected to be a top five pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft – is a stalwart on the back end for the Chiefs. Over the past few seasons, Cowen has learned to use his 6’5, 211 Ibs frame to his advantage, in regards to positioning and aggressiveness. As a seventeen year-old, Cowen exhibits incredible poise and skates very well for his size. Is starting to draw many Chris Pronger comparisons.
Drayson Bowman #27: Bowman – who led the Chiefs in scoring during the regular season and playoffs – was Carolina’s 3rd round selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Bowman is Spokane’s go-to-guy offensively; he possesses great speed and offensive instincts, yet still plays a responsible two-way game. Currently tied for the tournament lead with 5 goals in 3 games.
Mitch Wahl #14: In his 2nd season in the Western Hockey League, this native of Seal Beach, California recorded 73 points in 67 games on a defensive oriented team. Wahl – who is currently ranked 64th among North American skaters by Central Scouting for the upcoming Entry Draft – is heavily relied upon to provide secondary scoring for the Chiefs. This crafty center has recorded a respectable 6 points in 3 Memorial Cup games thus far.
As the top seed in the tournament, Spokane’s ability to make the last change will play a major factor on the outcome of Sunday’s match-up. It’s likely Kitchener’s first line of Justin Azevado, Matt Halischuk, and Nick Spaling will see a whole lot of Spokane’s Jared Cowen, which was the case in the teams’ round-robin encounter. If Spokane is able to contain this dynamic first line once again, Kitchener will need Mikkel Boedker to step up even more than he already has and provide a bulk of the offence. However, for Spokane to win this game, draft eligible goaltender Dustin Tokarski must certainly be on top of his game, as Kitchener’s well rounded attack will certainly get its chances, one way or another.
The atmosphere in the Memorial Auditorium in Kitchener will be absolutely electric to start the game, so it will be key for Spokane to survive the initial energy of the host team. The Chiefs will attempt to use this initial energy to their advantage by activating their transition game off the bat with the hope to create an early turnover, anticipating the inevitable nerves of the host team. Kitchener will undoubtedly give Spokane all they can handle, but the Chiefs will become the 2nd consecutive WHL team to bring home the Memorial Cup,
Prediction: 3-2 Chiefs
Farhan Devji is the author of a hockey based novel, “The Hockey Farmer.” For more information, visit thehockeyfarmer.ca.tp.