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Brampton - As hosts of the Memorial Cup, the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors hoped to enter the tournament as Ontario Hockey League winners. The Owen Sound Attack denied them that wish in the OHL Championship Series.
“I was surprised with the result of the final only because of the way it started,” Stan Butler, head coach of the Brampton Battalion, said recently. “It looked like Mississauga would just take it over, but that never happened.”
Mississauga, which fashioned the OHL’s best regular-season record, lost only one game over three playoff rounds in winning the Eastern Conference title. In the league final, the Majors met the Owen Sound Attack, which won the Western Conference crown and, as it happened, a Memorial Cup berth by defeating the Windsor Spitfires, OHL and Canadian Hockey League titlists in each of the last two years.
The 10-day, four-team Memorial Cup tournament opens Friday night at the Hershey Centre when Mississauga meets the Saint John Sea Dogs, champions of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Kootenay Ice, Western Hockey League champs, round out the field.
Mississauga won the first two games of the OHL Championship Series, but the Attack took Games 3 and 4 to tie it. The Majors won 7-3 at home in the fifth game before the Attack captured a 3-2 home-ice victory to force a seventh and deciding game. In it, Owen Sound prevailed 3-2 in overtime at Mississauga last Sunday for the Attack’s first J. Ross Robertson Cup triumph.
The Troops and Majors, rivals in Peel Region and the OHL’s Central Division, met eight times in the regular season, with Mississauga winning every game, five being decided by either one or two goals. The Majors are efficient at both ends of the ice, leading the league with 287 goals while allowing the fewest, 170.
“They’re a very solid team,” said Butler. “They have four solid lines and good defence They check well all over the ice. They’re a hard team to play against for 60 minutes. I think they’re capable of winning it all. They say defence wins championships, and there’s no doubt they’re that kind of team.”
The Battalion faced the Attack twice, losing 4-3 at Owen Sound on Oct. 9 and 4-1 at home on Jan. 16. The Attack finished atop the Western Conference, then eliminated the London Knights in six games and swept the Plymouth Whalers before meeting Windsor.
Butler gave credit to Owen Sound general manager Dale DeGray for acquiring the pieces for a championship team.
“They’re very balanced. They’re a team that’s been built through trades, and Dale traded for key guys like Robby Mignardi, Garrett Wilson, Andrew Shaw, Matt Petgrave, Jesse Blacker and Jay Gilbert. They had a tougher road to the final and they really competed hard.”
Saint John, which forged a won-lost-extended record of 58-7-3 in the QMJHL’s regular season, placed four players among the top 20 North American-based skaters in final rankings released by the National Hockey League’s central scouting department preparatory to the NHL Entry Draft in June.
Butler coached three of them, in centre Jonathan Huberdeau, ranked third, defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, rated fifth, and centre Zack Phillips, who was ranked 15th, at the CHL-NHL Top Prospects Game at Toronto in January.
“All of those kids are very highly skilled, and they’re coming with a very good team,” noted Butler.
The Sea Dogs, whose 324 goals made them the highest-scoring team in the CHL, eliminated the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Victoriaville Tigres and Lewiston Maineiacs before defeating the Gatineau Olympiques in six games to claim their first QMJHL title.
Butler said Mike Kelly, Saint John’s director of hockey operations and an associate coach, said he thought the team would be ready to contend for a championship in 2011-12, when it hoped to host the Memorial Cup, but that tournament eventually was awarded to Shawinigan. Kelly twice was an assistant under Butler as head coach of the Canadian national junior team.
“Mike told me he thinks his team is still young and maybe a year away from being as good as they can be. If the guys come with a lot of confidence, they should do well. They were looking ahead to next season because they thought they were going to host the Memorial Cup, and it will be their offence against the defence of teams like Mississauga. In the end we’ll see who prevails.”
Kootenay, which won the Memorial Cup at Guelph in 2002, was fourth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference. The Ice beat the Moose Jaw Warriors in six games and swept both the Saskatoon Blades, the conference’s top seed, and the Medicine Hat Tigers to advance to the WHL final, where it downed the Portland Winterhawks in five games.
Kootenay boasts goaltender Nathan Lieuwen, named the most valuable player in the playoffs, and veteran centre Cody Eakin, acquired from the Swift Current Broncos in a January trade. Eakin, who had 18 goals and 44 points in 26 regular-season games after the trade, produced 11 goals and 27 points in 19 playoff games.
“They were playing really good hockey at the end of the season,” said Butler. “For them to beat Saskatoon in four and knock out Portland in five shows they’re a very good team. They’re strong in goal with Lieuwen, and Eakin has been on fire in the playoffs. They won a lot of overtime and one-goal games, and at this time of the season momentum is a huge thing. They look like a team that has a lot of that.”