Defence first for Rockets, Spitfires

Ryan Pyette, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:26 PM ET

In 1988, the Windsor Spitfires played in their first Memorial Cup final in Chicoutimi and lost a 7-6 decision to the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Don’t expect that kind of goal fest in Saturday’s championship at the Rimouski Colisee.

The Spitfires and Western king Kelowna Rockets are made from the same stuff.

It’s a defence-first mentality supported by responsible forward depth and backed by veteran, albeit lightly-regarded, goaltending.

“It could end up being a 1-0 game,” said Windsor’s Bob Boughner, the Canadian Hockey League’s back-to-back coach of the year.

“Both of these teams like to limit scoring shots and scoring chances. On offence, you’re used to getting 45, 50 shots but in the Memorial Cup against a team like this, you get 30 to 35, that’s pretty good and then you have to make the most of those chances.”

The two clubs played on Tuesday. Kelowna, after winning its first two games, already knew it would be in the final. Windsor was already in survival mode and won 2-1 — the tournament’s lowest-scoring game and one of five contests decided by just one goal.

“They’ve been playing for their lives the last three games,” Rockets forward Jamie Benn said. “We know how they play and we’ve watched their last few games on TV. We didn’t play very well when we had a chance to knock them out and hopefully, we bring more energy today.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

Benn leads the tournament with five goals, including a four-goal outing against Drummondville. He has been Kelowna’s offensive powerhouse but was shut out by the Spits.

He’s looking for the junior hockey double — world junior gold and Memorial Cup. So is Windsor defenceman Ryan Ellis, the quarterback of the Spitfires’ power play and backbone of their offence.

The star players have shown up this week but this physically-demanding Cup has belonged to forwards who can grind like Benn, Windsor’s Adam Henrique (semifinal overtime hero) and Maple Leafs draft pick Dale Mitchell, whose three-goal, third-period flurry for the Spits knocked out Rimouski.

“In tight games like this, you need the guys you count on to shut down another team’s big line or are out there when you need to win a big draw,” Boughner said. “Henrique and Benn are that kind of player. That’s why you see New Jersey drafting guys like Henrique and (Rimouski’s) Patrice Cormier. Good, solid forwards who can play any style.”

There is unmistakable offensive firepower on board.

“(Windsor’s) Taylor Hall is probably better as an all-round forward but (Kelowna forward and Calgary first-rounder) Mikeal Backlund is really dynamic offensively,” Boughner said. “Both are game-changers.”

Kelowna has a defence that features six-foot-seven Buffalo prospect Tyler Myers and talented Tyson Barrie, whose dad Len is a Tampa Bay Lightning co-owner.

Barrie played last season as a 16-year-old as Maple Leaf Luke Schenn’s defence partner.

“He would be like our Ryan Ellis,” Kelowna head coach Ryan Huska said. “He’s good at both ends of the ice and he really worked at getting better in his own end.”

Between the pipes, both goalies are undrafted NHL free agents looking for pro jobs.

Windsor’s Andrew Engelage keeps finding ways to win and holds the OHL’s single-season mark for victories. Kelowna’s Mark Guggenberger never held a junior starting job until he was dealt to the Rockets in January.


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