KITCHENER, Ont. – The recovery of Belleville Bulls forward Shawn Matthias should be cause for concern for the other three teams at the Memorial Cup.
Matthias had the go-ahead goal and also scored short-handed in the Bulls’ 6-3 win over the Gatineau Olympiques on Monday at the Canadian Hockey League championship.
It was just the third post-season game for the towering winger after a bout of mononucleosis. His legs, wind and timing are coming together.
“I feel better every game,” Matthias said. “Tonight I felt more that I had my breathe back and more like my old self.”
The Florida Panthers’ prospect, who has already scored his first two NHL goals during a call-up in January, is difficult to contain with his big powerful strides and puck skills.
When Matthias is in the corner, he can be at the net in two strides and is a threat to score every time he gets there.
That’s how he set up Matt Halischuk’s overtime goal for Canada in the final of the world junior hockey championship in January, as Halischuk scored on a rebound.
Gatineau’s loss was the Spokane Chiefs’ gain as the Western Hockey League champions clinched the bye to Sunday’s final game with a 2-0 record following victories over host Kitchener and Belleville.
The Olympiques dropped to 0-2 and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champs must beat Spokane on Tuesday to force a tiebreaker game and avoid elimination.
“I don’t think one guy in the room is ready to go home,” Olympiques forward Claude Giroux said. “Spokane is the hottest team in the tournament right now, but we’ll just have to play as hard as we can.”
The second-and third-place teams meet in Friday’s semifinal.
The Bulls and Kitchener Rangers (1-1) conclude the round robin Wednesday in a rematch of the Ontario Hockey League championship series.
The Rangers needed seven games to get by Belleville for the title.
“It’s going to be so much fun, this place is going to be so frigging crowded and it’s going to be crazy,” defenceman Nigel Williams said. “We loved it during the OHL championship and we get to actually play them again and get to try and have some revenge on them.”
Williams had a goal and two assists for Belleville in front of 6,639 at Memorial Auditorium. Jan Mursak, Cory Tanaka and Keaton Turkiewicz also scored and Adam Perry added two assists.
Tanaka scored one of two short-handed goals for the Bulls in the game. Goaltender Mike Murphy made 30 saves for his first win of the tournament.
Hugo Laporte, Michael Stinziani and Claude Giroux replied for the Olympiques. Defenceman Takuma Kawai had two assists and Ryan Mior stopped 41 of 47 shots in the loss.
The Olympiques have yet to lead a game this tournament, but have been tenacious in their pursuit of opposing team’s leads.
They’re thin on the blue-line. Top defenceman Maxime Mallette played his first game since January in Gatineau’s first game of the Memorial Cup, but did not play again Monday.
Jonathan Carrier, their No. 4 rearguard, has been sidelined since mid-season.
Hubert Labrie played after limping off the ice Friday and Kawai, a forward, continues to fill in on defence.
Gatineau’s defence has occasionally struggled below the top of the faceoff circles and Mior has faced 100 shots in two games.
“We can’t win if we allow 47 shots,” Gatineau head coach Benoit Groulx said. “We can’t give space to the opposition.
“Two short-handed goals was devastating for us.”
Matthias, six foot four and 213 pounds, played Game 7 of the OHL final and in Saturday’s 5-4 loss to Spokane at the Memorial Cup.
“The first game I played more on adrenaline and it took a toll on my body and timing wasn’t there,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable with the puck and made some mistakes I don’t usually make.
“Right now, it’s all starting to come back and I don’t always feel like I’m always under pressure with the puck anymore, so that’s a nice feeling.”
Belleville head coach George Burnett wants to be cautious with his star winger.
“We were concerned about giving him too much ice time and expecting too much of him,” Burnett said. “He wants to play and finish off the season strong.”
Matthias re-directed a Williams shot from the blue-line off the post and behind Mior at 13:04 of the third for the winning goal.
That opened the floodgates for Belleville as Turkiewicz also struck on a re-direct from Williams at 15:35 and Williams scored a power-play goal at 17:43.
The two clubs traded goals in the second period, which ended deadlocked at 3-3.
Giroux, who played two games for the Philadelphia Flyers in February, scored his first of the tournament at 9:35 of the second period.
Quick-handed Paul Byron sent a pass through the top of the crease and Giroux deflected the puck low on Murphy’s glove hand.
Tanaka’s third goal of the tournament and Belleville’s second short-handed was from the top of the faceoff circle between Mior’s pads at 1:49.
The Bulls took an early two-goal lead, but the Olympiques had tied it up by the end of the opening period.
Stinziani scored his second of the tournament at 18:05 on an odd-man rush with Darryl Smith and beat Murphy glove side.
Laporte’s floater through traffic from the blue-line fooled Murphy as the puck sailed over his shoulder at 13:46.
Mior came out of his net to play the puck with Matthias bearing down on him and instead of staying on the big forward, defenceman Patrik Prokop went to Gatineau’s net.
Matthias stole the puck from Mior and backhanded it under a sprawling Prokop for a short-handed goal and a 2-0 lead at 10:26.
Mursak, a Detroit Red Wings draft pick, got a deflection off Prokop with a shot from the point at 8:13, just as Giroux was stepping out of the penalty box after serving a high-sticking minor.