RIMOUSKI, Que. – The MasterCard Memorial Cup has been the first showcase for Windsor Spitfires phenom Taylor Hall and for the most part, the speedy forward has come through.
The 17-year-old goes into the final against the Kelowna Rockets on Sunday (Rogers Sportsnet, 4:30 p.m. ET) tied with teammate Adam Henrique for third in tournament scoring with two goals and five assists in five games.
He had a goal and assisted on Henrique’s overtime game-winner in a 3-2 victory over the Drummondville Voltigeurs at the Colisee de Rimouski.
“I think I played well in spurts,” Hall said Saturday. “There have been a couple of games where I haven’t been at my best, but the last game I played really well.
“I like to think I come up big when the pressure’s on and hopefully I can do that on Sunday.”
Hall is an early frontrunner to be picked first overall in the 2010 NHL draft.
He turns 18 on Nov. 14, which is past the deadline for eligibility for the 2009 draft next month in Montreal or he might have been close to London Knights scorer John Tavares and Swedish defenceman Victor Hedman for top spot in that one.
But the Kingston, Ont., native said he’s happy to play an extra year of junior hockey so he can fill out his game, much as projected top-5 pick Matt Duchene of the Brampton Battalion did this season.
“There’s a lot of flaws in my game that I’d like to get better at and I’m happy I have a whole year to do that,” said the six-foot 178-pound Hall. “You see the way Duchene is getting credit for the way he plays in both ends, that’s the way I’d like to be seen next year.
“Hopefully when the draft comes around next year, I’m a complete player, someone the scouts really can rely on.”
Another who is considered a potential first overall pick in 2010 is Cam Fowler, who is slated to join the Spitfires next season from the U.S. under-18 development team, raising the possibility that Windsor could repeat as Ontario Hockey League champion.
Hall has shown dashes of brilliance at the Memorial Cup, using his great speed to back up defences and create scoring chances. He has also had periods when he is barely noticed, such as in Windsor’s 5-4 loss to Rimouski in round robin play, and he has taken some bad penalties in the attacking zone.
But Spitfires coach Bob Boughner considers Hall a key piece of his attack.
“The best thing about him is that the other teams have to respect him so much that whenever he’s on the ice, they’ve got to throw their best two defencemen out there,” said Boughner. “That frees up our other two lines.
“He’s controlled the play almost every game. He’s missed a couple of breakaways and hit a couple of posts or he could be leading this tournament. He works hard and he’s hungry on the puck every shift. That’s his strength.”
Hall will be looking to help the Spitfires to a unlikely comeback at the Memorial Cup.
Rated as the favourite coming in, Windsor dropped its first two games to Drummondville and Rimouski but stayed alive with a 2-1 win over a listless Kelowna team that has already clinched first place in the round robin and a bye into the final.
The Spitfires beat Rimouski in the tie-breaker game, then managed their OT win over the Voltigeurs in the semifinal on Friday night.
Now the question is whether they are on a roll or whether they’ll have legs left for a fourth game in six days.
“Whether or not they got on a roll since they played us is irrelevant,” said Rockets coach Ryan Huska. “It’s one-game situation now and whoever has more discipline and more emotional control will come out on the winning side.
“We’ve had a chance to watch Windsor play a few times now. I don’t think there’s anything fancy or special about how they play. They’ve got a good group of forwards and defencemen and a goaltender (Andre Engelage) who stops pucks. But what makes them hard to play against is that they compete so hard.”
Henrique, mainly a checking centre, has been a standout for the Spitfires, while some key players who struggled early like Dale Mitchell, Greg Nemisz and Andrei Loktionov have come around in recent games. Eric Wellwood has been strong on attack the entire tournament, while Ryan Ellis is a force on the point on the power play.
The Rockets’ top players _ forward Jamie Benn and towering defenceman Tyler Myers _ were dominant from the start. Benn shares the tournament lead in scoring with eight points with Drummondville’s Yannick Riendeau, who played one more game.
Myers is a force with his long reach and mobility on the blue-line. His partner, draft-eligible Tyson Barrie, has also been strong with four points.
“They do have a lot of skill guys and their power play is very potent, so we have to stay off the penalty kill,” said Barrie, the son of Tampa Bay Lightning co-owner Len Barrie, who has been in Rimouski to watch his son this week.
Interesting note: Tyson Barrie does not want to be drafted by Tampa Bay.
“I hope not,” he said. “Not in this upcoming draft, but maybe later in my career. I’d kind of like to do it on my own before that happens.”
A question for the Rockets is whether they will be refreshed or rusty from a five-day break in games before the final.
Another is whether the loss to the Spitfires will linger in their minds.
“We talked about that,” said Barrie. “We came out flat in that game and they outplayed us.
“We thought we might see them again in the final if we let them through and we did. But we’ll be ready for them.”
Boughner said a decision will be made Sunday on whether defenceman Jesse Blacker, who left the semifinal with an apparent leg injury, will be able to suit up.