Cue the Memorial Cup drama — finally
Edmonton Oil Kings-Val-d’Or Foreurs semifinal has potential for fireworks following predictable round robin
Val-d’Or Foreurs forward Anthony Richard skates with the puck past Edmonton Oil Kings forward Henrik Samuelsson during their Memorial Cup round-robin game Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in London, Ont. The Foreurs and the Oil Kings clash again in Friday’s semifinal.
Photograph by: Claus Andersen, Getty Images
LONDON, Ont. — At a Memorial Cup Tournament that has lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, the semifinal between the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Val d’Or Foreurs could be a fine tonic for a mild case of hockey ennui.
Friday night’s game (5 p.m. MDT) pits East vs. West, offence vs. defence, a marquee sniper — Val d’Or’s 19-year-old Anthony Mantha — facing an elite defender — Edmonton’s Griffin Reinhart, 20.
Finally, the potential for sporting drama in a somewhat tepid, predictable competition, at least so far.
Not to mention a matchup of hot goalies, Tristan Jarry of the Oil Kings against Antoine Bibeau of the Foreurs, the hardest working ‘tender at the tournament, having faced 50 shots twice and 36 shots in two periods of another game.
The only thing missing is a local angle, but that disappeared with the London Knights, who were flattened 7-2 Wednesday night by the Guelph Storm, went winless in their three round-robin games, and are gone, a major disappointment to their fan base.
The Oil Kings and the Foreurs, one club with a defensive identity, the other an offensive machine, are thrilled to advance to the semifinal. Neither is unhappy about the rematch, either. It makes it a little easier to prepare for an opponent whose tendencies you know something about.
The Foreurs are Memorial Cup newbies, so the Oil Kings, with eight returning players from the club that competed in the 2012 tournament in Shawinigan, will try to lean on their experience.
“It’s huge,” Oil Kings centre Curtis Lazar said. “We’re going to try to use our experience, like we have been the entire time.
“But this is uncharted territory for us, as well. We haven’t been in the semifinal of the Memorial Cup before.
“It’s win or go home and we have to play with that mindset. But it’s fun knowing that you could have possibly one or two games left in your season. You want to try to drag it out as long as possible.”
Speaking of huge, the Mantha vs. Reinhart matchup is sizable, pitting the 6-foot-5, 204-pound Mantha, a 57-goal scorer with Val d’Or this season, against Reinhart, a 6-foot-4, 215-pound shutdown defenceman who plays in the neighbourhood of 30 sniper-unfriendly minutes a game.
There are two key aspects to the Oil Kings’ plan against Mantha and the Foreurs: one is to have Reinhart out there against Mantha whenever possible, as he was in the 4-3 double overtime win by Val d’Or on Tuesday night.
“I know from my aspect, when people take away my time and space, it’s tough to do anything,” Lazar said. “So we sort of have to do that on (Mantha).
“We have probably the best shutdown guy in junior hockey in Griffin Reinhart on our side. When he goes out there, they’re two good players going at it.”
Lazar said there really isn’t a player in the WHL comparable to Mantha, a teammate of both Lazar and Reinhart with Canada’s National Junior Team at the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
“A guy of his size, his scoring ability and his strength, it’s a rare breed,” Lazar said. “He can shoot the puck, too.
“I mean, there are a lot of players who can shoot the puck, but his accuracy is really incredible to watch. When I’m going out to block his shots, I have to make sure I’m in the lane. It’s almost like he can curve them around me, sometimes.
“You look at him, he just picks his spots and he can just go. He has those first and second gears where he can really change the tempo of the game and take control of situations. I know (tonight) we’re really going to have to key on him. Big players can do big things in games with a lot on the line.”
Mantha, who had scored 82 goals in 82 games — including regular-season, playoffs and the World Junior — has just scored the one goal in London, the game-winner in Val d’Or’s opening-night 1-0 win over London.
Mantha was scathingly critical of himself following the Foreurs’ 6-3 loss to unbeaten Guelph, but elevated his game in Val d’Or’s 4-3 win over Edmonton.
“I talked a little bit with my teammates and the coaches,” Mantha said. “For me, it was something important that I had to step up, it’s a part of my game that I need to get better at.”
The other key element in the Oil Kings’ game plan is to take the game to the Foreurs, play in their zone as much as possible, force Mantha and his teammates to defend, which is neither their strength nor their natural tendency.
“They’ve played a lot of hockey recently,” Oil Kings winger Brett Pollock said. “So as long as we can play in their zone, I think we’ll wear them down and hopefully that goes well for us.”
n early lead always helps, too.
“Very important,” Pollock said. “We want to put them on their heels a little bit and keep on pushing, and hopefully take the energy off their bench right away.”
The Foreurs want to get an early lead also, so they can play the opportunistic game they thrive on as opposed to sitting back.
“This is what we’re looking for,” Durocher said. “We’ve got an offensive team, let’s be honest.
“So, if the other team is behind, they’re going to have to push. When they have to open up, this is where we can be even better.
“If they open (up), we’re going to take (advantage of) those chances because we’ve got quality offensive players.
Mind you, Durocher said his players signed off on a commitment to play better team defence at the beginning of the QMJHL playoffs. On Thursday, he ran his players through drills emphasizing back pressure, protecting the slot and reducing odd-man rushes, all defensive keys.
“That’s what we did in the third (period) and in overtime against Edmonton (on Tuesday night),” Durocher said.
The Foreurs coach wants a more conscientious approach to team defence — in other words, less reliance on the six-foot-2, 210-pound Bibeau and his .934 save percentage.
Whether it’s offence beating defence or vice versa, whoever advances to the Memorial Cup final on Sunday (2 p.m. MDT) will deal with the Storm, demonstrably the most complete team in the tournament.
But in a one-shot deal for the Canadian major junior hockey championship, anything can happen.
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