Friday, 16 May 2014

Memorial Cup: Val D'Or 1, London Knights 0

The Memorial Cup preliminary games start with an interesting matchup, with the host team London Knights having had a month off after being bumped out of the OHL playoffs by the Guelph Storm.  The Knights take on the Val D'Or Foreurs, who conversely come out of two hard-fought seven game series against the Halifax Mooseheads and the Drakkar de Baie-Comeau, the latter finishing just on Tuesday, giving them a couple of days to get their bearings and travel to London.  So it should be a game between a hot but tired team against a rested but rusty team.

We see Mario Durocher interviewed on the telecast, and I can't help but notice that the Foreurs' coach got a haircut, such as it is, and it is toned down to merely unbecoming, compared to the previous horrid wild mess of a look he sported during the playoffs.  Good job coach, look the part.

Touching story on Brady Austin, who contracted mononucleosis in April and had to go home to Bobcaygeon, Ontario, and convalesce, coincidentally as his father was in the last stages of cancer.  According to Damien Cox, they spent the father's last few days together, and after he passed away, the entire London Knights team attended the funeral.

Mildly surprised to see Steve Bégin behind the Foreurs bench, I guess he's an assistant coach.  I've decided to cheer on the small-town LHJMQ, and knowing I'm cheering on Steve's team makes it an even easier decision.  

Well, the narrative holds up somewhat, in that the rested team stormed the Foreurs' zone all game with their fresh legs, but their reflexes, their coordination was a little off.  They fired 51 shots at the Val D'Or net, with plenty more getting blocked or going wide.  Lots of passes that didn't connect, lots of open nets missed.  So, they were rusty.

Meanwhile, the Foreurs seemed overwhelmed by the pressure at times, but rarely flustered.  Antoine Bibeau, their star goaltender, continued in the way he apparently has during the LHJMQ playoffs, cooling things off repeatedly and pitching a shutout in a 1-0 Foreurs win.

Their other star, Anthony Mantha, came as advertised.  He's not a furious forechecker, he's more of a position player, with a quick stick that he demonstrated often breaking up passes or blocking shot attempts, but you can see how he may have had some question marks concerning his effort and concentration in the leadup to the draft.  He answered those questions this year, scoring 81 goals in 81 games played, including All-Star and World Junior appearances, as well as the playoffs.   

And you can make it 82 for 82 now, he manufactured his own goal by stripping the puck off a Knight while backchecking, veering and passing to his linemate and captain Samuel Henley.  The latter, being no fool, quickly made this a give-and-go, returning the pass promptly, and Mr. Mantha did the rest, weaving into the Knight's zone and dekeing around goalie Anthony Stolarz, and tucking the puck in beyond his right pad. 

He had two other clear scoring chances, ringing one off the post, and was dangerous all night.  He killed penalties on top of his powerplay responsibility.  The Detroit Red Wings have themselves a heck of a prospect.

Two other Foreurs I had my eye on, Randy Gazzola and Guillaume Gélinas, were the confident puck movers as described by reports.  Mr. Gazzola is a bigger, more physical type, and is a right-handed shot.  He's a free agent 'overager', so he can help himself during this tournament and attract some scouts' attention.  Mr. Gélinas is a smaller, shiftier type, and led the LHJMQ in scoring this season for a defenceman.  

He is in the same position as his teammate, being an undrafted free agent.  If I had to guess though, Mr. Gazzola will have an easier time finding a job, with his greater size and valuable righthanded shot playing in his favour.

One player I did keep an eye out for was 2103 Montréal first-rounder Michael McCarron.  And I had to, he didn't necessarily draw attention.  It's not that he's loafing, but he's not very quick or agile, so he's often chasing the play.  Having said that, he did make a good pass to the slot after winning a puck battle behind the net, and did come close to scoring early in the first, but couldn't quite get a good shot off as he was pushed down while reaching for a puck in the crease.

Another worrisome sign is that he's been bumped down to the fourth-line centre role, as opposed to third-line duty with Gemel Smith as he was tasked with late this season.  I know that the Knights have had some players return from injury, so they had a full roster, but you'd kind of hope that it would be these other guys who filled the bottom of the roster.

So a good game for the Foreurs, they get to steal a win right off the bat, and now get two days to catch their breath and rest and replenish.  The Knights are in a hole, but you can hope that their hometown rink and fans will be an advantage, and that they're going to be better after this first-game tuneup out of the way.

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