Clash of the titans

KEN WIEBE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:36 PM ET

WINDSOR SPITFIRES

The Windsor Spitfires come into the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup as the cardiac kids -- and in the eyes of some, the overwhelming favourite.

If it wasn't enough that they overcame an 0-2 start at the 2009 Memorial Cup in Rimouski to win the next four and claim their first national junior hockey title, the Spitfires did the unthinkable by erasing a 3-0 deficit in the Ontario Hockey League conference final to defeat the Kitchener Rangers.

Since that time, the Spitfires rolled up eight consecutive victories to eliminate the Rangers and Barrie Colts from contention and capture a second straight Robertson Cup title.

"When we got down 0-3, we tapped into what happened last year in Rimouski (at the Memorial Cup) and since then, knock on wood, we haven't lost an elimination game," Spitfires GM Warren Rychel said earlier this week. "That's a good thing to have. Give all the credit to the players. Nothing seems to bother them."

The Spitfires are a dynamic team that isn't afraid to play physical.

"You can't really pinpoint one thing, we're pretty good in all areas," said Rychel.

"Our team is experienced and can play it any way you want it. We have some exciting players who play with high energy."

Two of those exciting players are forward Taylor Hall and defenceman Cam Fowler, who are both pegged to be taken in the first five picks of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft in Los Angeles.

The Spitfires are used to the spotlight, which is beneficial going into a tournament like this one.

"We're used to it," said Rychel. "We won't be wide-eyed when we get there. We just want to win hockey games. We're taking nothing for granted.

"You've got to go prove yourself all over again."

Rychel would like to see the Spitfires take a different path as they attempt to defend their title.

"We don't want to do what we did last year, going in kind of quiet and losing the first two games," said Rychel.

"We want to make sure we try to get on the board early with a win.

"We're prepared. We've got a veteran-laden team with a lot of guys who have something to prove."

COACH: Bob Boughner

RECORD: 50-12-1-5

ROAD TO THE CUP: Swept Barrie Colts 4-0 to capture Robertson Cup

CUP HISTORY: The Spitfires are making their third trip to the national championship and are the defending Memorial Cup champion. Windsor lost 7-6 to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 1988 final.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Taylor Hall (17G, 35P, 19 GP), F Adam Henrique (20G, 25P, 19GP, D Ryan Ellis (3G, 33P, 19GP), D Cam Fowler (3G, 14P)

FIRST GAME: Friday at 6 p.m. vs. Brandon Wheat Kings

MONCTON WILDCATS

Danny Flynn was one of the most active people during the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League trading period, and those bold moves paid big dividends for the Moncton Wildcats.

Flynn, the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Wildcats, was proactive before the deadline, bringing in six players to augment his group -- which earned the fourth and final berth in the MasterCard Memorial Cup by defeating the Saint John Sea Dogs four games to two.

"The mindset here in the Quebec League is different here than in the Ontario Hockey League or in the Western Hockey League because there's no trading other than in a two-week window," said Flynn.

"Here, you're either a buyer or a seller and nobody stands pat. We gave up some very good young players for some very good older players."

One of those additions was forward Gabriel Bourque, who went through a scoring drought upon his arrival (three goals, 14 points in 25 games) before exploding in the playoffs, scoring 19 times and picking up 29 points to win the Guy Lafleur award as QMJHL MVP.

Nicola Riopel also returned to the Wildcats after opening the season with the Adirondack Phantoms of the American Hockey League and solidified the goaltending.

Despite the changes in the locker-room, the Wildcats remained a cohesive group that pulled together when the stakes got higher.

"Most importantly, the group really jelled off the ice and the on-ice stuff follows," said Flynn.

One of the questions for the Wildcats going into the tournament surrounds the status of talented forward Nicolas Deschamps, another key deadline pick-up who has been out of action since suffering a leg injury April 23 and missed the QMJHL final.

Deschamps, a second-round pick (35th overall) of the Anaheim Ducks in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, tied for the QMJHL scoring lead (39 goals, 96 points) this season.

"He's participating in off-ice workouts and he's in the gym," said Flynn.

"He can see steady improvement, but whether he'll be ready of not for this weekend, we're not sure."

Playing in a riveting QMJHL final should serve as valuable preparation for the Memorial Cup.

"It was the first-ever all New Brunswick final with our fiercest rival in Saint John," said Flynn.

"The focus and the attention on the series was that it was probably the most important series in the history of hockey in New Brunswick and that's a major statement."

COACH: Danny Flynn

RECORD: 48-14-2-4

ROAD TO THE CUP: Defeated Saint John Sea Dogs 4-2 to win President Cup.

CUP HISTORY: This is the second trip to the Memorial Cup for the Wildcats, who won the QMJHL title and hosted the event in 2006, where they lost 6-2 to the Quebec Remparts in the championship final.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (PLAYOFF STATS): F Gabriel Bourque (19G, 29P, 21GP), F Kelsey Tessier (14G, 30P, 21GP), D Mark Barberio (5G, 22P, 21GP), G Nicola Riopel (21GP, 16-4, 2.14GAA, .930 save%, 3SO)

FIRST GAME: Saturday at 1 p.m. vs. Calgary Hitmen

CALGARY HITMEN

The Calgary Hitmen aren't expecting a warm welcome upon their arrival at Westman Place.

On their way to capturing the Ed Chynoweth Cup, the Hitmen bounced the host Brandon Wheat Kings from the Western Hockey League playoffs in five games to claim the Eastern Conference banner.

They followed that up by eliminating the Tri-City Americans, a team with 10 Manitobans on the roster, to claim the WHL crown.

But the Hitmen aren't in Manitoba to make friends over the next two weeks -- they're here to try and win the first Memorial Cup in franchise history.

Calgary was the top team in the WHL during the regular season, finishing three points ahead of the Wheat Kings, and they seem to be getting better as the playoffs wear on.

"We have very good depth, and we can handle ourselves against any kind of competitor," said Hitmen co-captain Ian Schultz. "We have demonstrated that throughout the year, going up against big, tough teams that try to run you out of the rink, and all the finesse teams in between."

The Hitmen feature a potent offensive attack, led by Los Angeles Kings draft pick Brandon Kozun, who won the WHL scoring derby in the regular season (32 goals, 107 points) and the playoffs (eight goals, 30 points).

While Kozun drives the offence, there's plenty of balance as 13 players accumulated double digits in points during the post-season and 18 players on the roster have scored at least one playoff goal.

"We've got a deep team, much like the other teams," said Hitmen head coach Mike Williamson. "We've found ways to win, and we haven't had to rely on any one guy.

"Right through our lineup, we've had a lot of different guys step up. Right from Day 1, this team has been one that had high expectations and just found ways to win, and I think that's our biggest strength."

On defence, the Hitmen are led by Phoenix Coyotes prospect Michael Stone and Giffin Nyren.

Between the pipes, Martin Jones was the top goalie in the playoffs, and he's excited for a shot at junior hockey supremacy after losing to the Kelowna Rockets in the WHL final last spring.

"To come up short was very disappointing, and I think it really set a fire under a lot of guys in the dressing room that were here last year," said Jones. "We're a really hungry team."

COACH: Mike Williamson

RECORD: 52-17-1-2

ROAD TO THE CUP: Defeated the Tri-City Americans 4-1 to win Ed Chynoweth Cup.

CUP HISTORY: The Hitmen are making their second Memorial Cup trip after losing the final to the Ottawa 67's in 1999.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Brandon Kozun (8G, 30P, 23GP), D Michael Stone (5G, 20P, 23GP), F Joel Broda (13G, 17P, 23GP), G Martin Jones (23GP, 16-7, 2.36GAA, .915 save%, 2SO)

FIRST GAME: Saturday at 1 p.m. vs. Moncton Wildcats

BRANDON WHEAT KINGS

The Brandon Wheat Kings are the only team in the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup that hasn't taken a sip out of a championship trophy this spring.

But unlike most teams that are eliminated from playoff contention, the Wheat Kings have an opportunity to change that.

"It's not the way we would have written the story as far as getting to the Memorial Cup, but sometimes in life, you get a second chance, and we just want to make sure we can write things better this time around," said Wheat Kings defenceman Travis Hamonic.

"No one is doubting we should be in the Memorial Cup right now. Every game is going to be a statement game for us, and we have to make sure we're at our best.

"All the teams in this tournament, except for us, come in as champions, and we're still fighting to win a championship of our own."

After finishing second in the overall standings in the Western Hockey League, the Wheat Kings lost in five games to the Calgary Hitmen during the Eastern Conference final.

Although the Wheat Kings wanted to go in the front door as WHL champions, they don't feel overmatched.

"Our team is really motivated, and we would be regardless of if we were league champions or in the circumstances that we are," said Wheat Kings head coach and GM Kelly McCrimmon.

"With the nature of the tournament, the host team has two chances, if necessary, to win a championship, and we're hoping to make good on our second opportunity."

Recent history is certainly on their side, as the Wheat Kings are hoping to become the third WHL team to capture the Memorial Cup after failing to win the league crown -- the 2004 Kelowna Rockets and the 2007 Vancouver Giants are the others.

The Wheat Kings are an offensively-gifted bunch, with Los Angeles Kings prospect Brayden Schenn anchoring a group of forwards that includes fellow first-round pick Scott Glennie, Matt Calvert, Toni Rajala, Aaron Lewadniuk and Jay Fehr.

There were some questions surrounding the Wheat Kings goaltending for much of the season, but McCrimmon remains confident in both Jacob De Serres and Andrew Hayes -- to the point he's not ready to announce who will get the call in the tournament opener.

De Serres got the lion's share of the work during the post-season, appearing in 12 of the Wheat Kings 15 games (8-4 record, 3.17 goals against average and .897 save percentage).

COACH: Kelly McCrimmon

RECORD: 50-18-1-3

ROAD TO THE CUP: Lost 4-1 to Calgary Hitmen in Eastern Conference final.

CUP HISTORY: The Wheat Kings have made four previous trips to the Memorial Cup -- 1949 (as a Manitoba Junior Hockey League team), 1979, 1995 and 1996 -- and have never won it.

PLAYERS TO WATCH (PLAYOFF STATS): F Brayden Schenn (8G, 19P, 15GP), F Matt Calvert (9G, 16P, 15GP), F Scott Glennie (3G, 10P, 15GP), D Travis Hamonic (4G, 11P, 15GP)

FIRST GAME: Friday at 6 p.m. vs. Windsor Spitfires


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