'Hawks-Mooseheads in anticipated clash of junior titans

Halifax Mooseheads' Stefan Fournier (L) celebrates his goal with teammate Jonathan Drouin against...

Halifax Mooseheads' Stefan Fournier (L) celebrates his goal with teammate Jonathan Drouin against the London Knights during the first period of the Memorial Cup Canadian Junior Hockey Championships in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, May 21, 2013. REUTERS/Todd Korol

Ryan Pyette, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:46 PM ET

SASKATOON – Twenty-four years ago in this rink, the Swift Current Broncos won the Western Hockey League's third straight Memorial Cup.

None of the three Canadian Hockey League circuits have pulled off another three-peat.

The Halifax Mooseheads can, with a win over the Portland Winterhawks in Sunday night's championship game at the Credit Union Centre, make it an historic three in a row for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, long regarded as the CHL's free-wheeling, grit-deficient, weaker sister.

“I'm the first one to say the 'Q' gets an unjust rap sometimes,” said Halifax co-captain Stefan Fournier, the burly 21-year-old forward from Dorval, Que. “Saint John won it (two years ago) and last year with Shawinigan, it's still looked upon as a softer, not-as-strong hockey league. At this point in time, I can't see that being the truth anymore.

“Maybe 20 years ago when I wasn't born and the (QMJHL) went through that 14-year drought (from 1982-95), but we stick up pretty well with the other leagues.”

The Bobby Smith-owned Mooseheads piled up 58 wins, only lost twice in a row once, and went 16 for 17 in their playoff run. Their dominance made it look like they were men against boys and used the rest of the league as a punching bag.

“All the three leagues are respected, the Q isn't as much, but we can't complain,” Moose star forward Nathan MacKinnon said. “We've had a lot of attention this year.”

Halifax and Portland were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 almost all year. They're the two highest-scoring teams in major junior hockey, the up-tempo antithesis of the trap-happy systems that have infiltrated the younger ranks.

Four of the top NHL prospects – MacKinnon, Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin, goalie Zach Fucale – have made this Cup game feel as hyped up as a world junior tilt.

“It's got the best players in the world (at this age) in it,” Portland centre Taylor Peters said, “and the fans come to see excitement and that's what this game's going to be.”

The Oregon-based Winterhawks have made the Cup final every 15 years like clockwork.

They're back after WHL final losses the previous two years dragging a hefty millstone around their necks.

Last fall, the club derisively dubbed the “Cheaterhawks” by naysayers received the harshest penalty in league history for violations relating to player benefits. General manager and head coach Mike Johnston was suspended for the rest of this season, top draft picks were stripped away and the team was fined $200,000.

“After the sanctions, we kind of played with a chip on our shoulder,” Peters said. “With Mike gone, we definitely used that as fuel the rest of the season. Not so much a thumbing of the nose, but we have used that all year and if we win this, it shows that nothing can stop us.”

Ex-Maple Leaf and Portland coach Travis Green stepped up on the bench and guided the club to great heights.

He leaned on Ty Rattie this week, overcame the loss of Flyers pick Taylor Leier after Saskatoon d-man Dalton Thrower's dirty hit, and kept the faith in combustible fifth-year goaltender Mac Carruth, terrible against Halifax in his Cup opener.

“I can't have a bad game again,” said Carruth, a 21-year-old from Shorewood, Minn. “Not taking anything away from (MacKinnon's round-robin hat trick) but a lot of those weren't earned goals. When you score from behind the goal line, it's tough to say that was a good goal but it's on me. You'd like to be lights out every night, but that's sports, right? I just want to win this championship. I don't care who it's against.”

The oldest goalie has a history of winning the Cup, but it comes with a price. The last 20 years, the champ in net has rarely set the bar for future NHL success.

“It's your last kick at the can, too, so you're going to give it everything you've got,” Carruth said. “That being said, these younger guys (on Halifax) don't know if they're coming back, either, so they're going to give it all, too.”

Halifax has never won the Cup. Their average attendance has nearly doubled since the young guns arrived last year.

“Our goal,” coach Dominique Ducharme said, “is to go back there and share it with the fans, with a win.”

It would be a big boost to an overlooked league. A Winterhawks win would limit the damage of their own sins.

“It would be satisfying,” Green said. “It's very satisfying any time you can win a Memorial Cup. With the year we had, a lot of adversity, it would obviously be special if we can get a win.”

 


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