2013-14 Memorial Cup Finals: In with a bang, out with a whimper

Going into the finale of the Master Card Memorial Cup in London, Ontario, the smart money was on the Guelph Storm to win their first title in their current incarnation. The WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings were a good squad, to be sure, but the Storm were electric. The 340 goals they scored in the OHL regular season were more than any other CHL team could muster with only six other teams even reaching 300. This despite the fact that teams from the WHL all played four more regular season than did their Ontario-based peers. When you throw in league playoff scoring, only Val d’Or managed to best Guelph’s 97 postseason goals, although they played an additional four games and only bested the OHL champs by a single red light.

Leading into Sunday’s game, Guelph continued their high powered ways with 18 goals through the three round robin games. Even giving their championship game combatants from Edmonton the benefit of a semi-final game to add to their tally, the Oil Kings had managed only 14 goals in four games. Anyone who needed any extra reason to believe that Guelph would win needed only to point to their round robin matchup, which the Storm walked away from as 5-2 victors. Backing Edmonton, all anyone had was the fact that the Oil Kings actually outshot Guelph I their previous matchup, 39-32, which can only partially be attributed to score effects, and journalistic tropes about their former teammate and onetime Edmonton Oiler prospect Kristian Pelss, who died last June after falling from a bridge in Latvia.

Finally, and not insignificantly, the Storm was practically at home in London as the host city was only 120 km from their home arena. With the home town team long since eliminated from the proceedings, the Budweiser Gardens were full of Guelph supporters.

The game began with Guelph in the ascendancy, the Storm creating havoc in front of Tristan Jarry in the Edmonton crease within the first 30 seconds and lighting the lamp exactly 60 seconds into the game. Oil Kings draft eligible blueliner Dysin Mayo made a horrible decision with the puck in his own end, attempting a diagonal exit pass into the neutral zone. Although he was not under any significant pressure from a Guelph forecheck, his pass lacked zip and was quickly picked off by Zack Mitchell. Mitchell, a recent free agent signee by the Minnesota Wild, entered the zone, dished to Robby Fabbri, who, in turn, passed to Kerby Rychel near the left corner. Rychel, continuing his excellence from the round robin phase, made a beautiful pass towards to the crease to a waiting Fabbri, who had a relatively easy tap in near the goal mouth. Tic-tac, quick passes, quick goal.

The Storm kept up the pressure for another 5-6 minutes, forcing the Oil Kings into two separate minor penalties, neither of which were necessary. Edmonton could not break the iron grip of possession that Guelph was enjoying. Sensing the frustration in the Edmonton game, Phil Baltisberger, a Swiss import on the Guelph blueline and a reasonable bet to be drafted in the middle rounds next month as a shutdown defender made a few attempts to draw another silly minor from Edmonton. After bowling over Mads Eller behind the Guelph net, he engaged in some extra-curricular physicality with the opposition that was more likely to see a coincidental minor than any man advantage. During the second power play, Rychel came very close to doubling the early advantage, but Jarry, who had looked shaky at times in the round robin, reacted very well to slide across his crease and prevent a second tap in.

The tide turned a little past the seven minute mark when top six center Jason Dickinson was whistled for holding the stick. Guelph may have been able to kill the penalty, but round robin hero Tyler Bertuzzi finally crossed the line and was booked for a trip 44 seconds in to the five on four. With 76 seconds of five on three available to them, Edmonton did not pass on the opportunity. Justin Nichols made a few nice saves early on but could not coral in the rebound and blueliner Cody Corbett, signed as an undrafted free agent by Colorado, moved from the point to just on top of the faceoff circle and rifled the puck past Nichol’s blocker to knot the game at one.

The westerners had a good chance to take a lead before the second penalty expired with Edgars Kulda catching a pass from the top of the slot with his back to the net, pivoting and forcing another good save from the Guelph netminder.

With the penalties both finally over, a commercial timeout allowed Guelph to catch their collective breath and finish the period on a high note. Overager Steven Trojanovic made one notably tasty exit pass from his own zone to the opposing blueline to a waiting Mitchell who was unable to convert the ensuing scoring chance. With just over three and a half minutes to go in the first frame, the Storm finally regained the lead. Third liner Pius Suter, a speedy Swiss pivot who excels more in his own zone than the offensive end, sprung loose in the neutral and broke in alone on Jarry. The Edmonton goalie parried the shot to his right where a trailing Steven Pierog was arriving to backhand the loose puck into an open net. Poor coverage by the Oil Kings top blueline duo of Griffin Reinhart and Aaron Irving was culpable on the goal.

The teams traded average chances for the next few minutes, but the Storm still led 2-1 when the horn blew to bring the first period to a close. Of note as the players filed off the ice was the shot counter favoring the trailing team by a count of 20-14 through 20 minutes.

Other than a tilted shot counter, the second period was not at all like the first. With the Storm impersonating the late season Toronto Maple Leafs, the Oil Kings were everywhere at once, turning the score, the game and the Memorial Cup on their collective heads.

Less than two minutes in, the rare used fourth line of Benson, Baddock and Robertson combined for their first goal of the tournament. Cole Benson, an undersized center took a faceoff from Suter and pushed the puck into open space. Tyler Robertson, a gangly winger who was acquired by Edmonton as a free agent after spending half of this season in the AJHL, picked up the loose puck in the scramble, pivoted and lifted a wrist shot over Justin Nichols’ glove to knot the game at two.

Edmonton had changed their game plan from period to period, as they now clogged the middle, forcing the Storm to attempt more long range passes instead of their more successful short quick tiki-taka style. With the long passes having a lower rate of conversion, the close to 10,000 in attendance were treated to a stretch of end-to-end hockey.

Just past the six minute mark, Edmonton took their first lead of the game while on another power play. The play was set up with Reinhart, in likely his last game as a junior, literally sitting on a Guelph penalty killer as his teammates entered the Storm zone. As the five on four became a four on three, the Oil Kings had enough space for the Latvian Kulda to pick up the puck all alone to the left of Nichols in the Storm crease. His wrist shot found just enough daylight to bulge twine.

From this point forwards, Guelph coach Scott Walker shortened his bench, with the fourth line seeing very little ice for the second half of the contest. The Ontarians tried to reply, with Scott Kosmachuk nearly creating a breakaway, only to be foiled by a great play by Dysin Mayo who, earlier gaffe notwithstanding, has used his above average mobility from the backend to good effect. Of note with this play and the rest of the game, after the Kulda power play goal, the refs put away their whistles, with neither team receiving a manpower advantage the rest of the game.

Later in the period Edmonton struck again, this time a goal from Oilers prospect Mitchell Moroz, a big and tough winger with reasonable scoring instincts for the junior game who projects as more of a grinder at the next level. Here though, Moroz is a top six player. He took a nice feed from Kulda and buried a hard wrist shot over Nichols’ glove to give Edmonton a 4-2 lead after 40. The Oild Kings outshot the Storm 15-8 in the period.