Predictions are tricky this year, eh?
With one game left tonight in the round robin, the WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders find themselves in a ghastly 0-2 hole at the Memorial Cup. A loss to the OHL’s Guelph Storm tonight would eliminate the Raiders, who came into Halifax with so much promise.
Stunningly, this continues a trend for the WHL, whose championship teams haven’t won a round robin game since 2015 (the WHL has hosted twice in that period, with Regina and Red Deer combining for three wins – two against the WHL champion entry in their respective years).
Swift Current was swept out in 2018, while in 2017, a gassed Seattle Thunderbirds team was outscored 18-3 in three straight losses. The last WHL champion to win a round robin game was Kelowna in 2015. The Rockets went 1-2, but thanks to tiebreakers, earned a spot in the semifinal. They won that game over host Quebec before falling to OHL Oshawa in the final.
Different years, different teams, different situations. Logically, this is just a screwy numbers thing, like the fact a Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993 (Montreal), or that a franchise with a predominantly blue jersey hasn’t won the Cup since 1994 (New York Rangers).
But the Raiders still have a slim chance at winning the Memorial Cup; they just need to get it done tonight against Guelph. So what’s gone wrong so far? Evidently, the very small holes in the Raiders’ impressive makeup have been exposed.
In Game 1 against the host Halifax Mooseheads, Prince Albert had to be extra-sharp in front of a rabid home crowd and a Halifax team that wanted to get off on the right foot after losing the QMJHL championship to Rouyn-Noranda. One of the Raiders’ faults this season was a lack of discipline and while it was usually countered by an outstanding penalty-kill, it was a concern. The Raiders gave Halifax six power plays in Game 1, with the Mooseheads scoring once. That’s not bad, but keep in mind all the offensive zone time you’re sacrificing when you’re down a man. Halifax ended up winning the game 4-1, with the final goal coming on an empty-netter.
In Game 2, the Raiders were downed by Rouyn-Noranda, my other pre-tournament favorite. This time, Prince Albert goaltender Ian Scott had an off night. The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect was the best netminder in all of major junior this season and he undoubtedly has a bright future in the pros, but as my WHL insider noted in my Memorial Cup preview, Scott can occasionally have a bad night where the floodgates open. In this case, the Huskies took advantage. Rouyn-Noranda’s first goal of the game was a sharp-angle shot from Tyler Hinam that Scott should have had. Later on, another Huskies score came after the Prince Albert goalie lost his stick and never recovered on the play. Now, could Scott recover and shut out Guelph to keep Prince Albert’s tournament alive? Yes, because he has that talent. Scott posted five shutouts in 23 WHL playoff games alone for the Raiders this year.
If the Raiders are going to force a tiebreaker game in the Memorial Cup, they’ll have to get all their offensive horses moving as well. A strength during the season and playoffs, Prince Albert has three lines that can hurt an opponent, but so far the goals have been sporadic. Potential 2019 first-round draft pick Brett Leason doesn’t have a point yet, nor does Aliaksei Protas (also up for the 2019 draft). Veteran Dante Hannoun is also pointless, as is Ottawa Senators pick Parker Kelly.
If any of those guys can get going, the Raiders will be in much better shape, since San Jose prospect Noah Gregor has continued to be a force for Prince Albert, while Montreal pick Cole Fonstad has also been hot.
If not, the Raiders will join their WHL champion brethren in defeat at the Memorial Cup. It’s a short tournament and anything can happen, so it’s not like the WHL needs some sort of symposium to get its groove back…but I’m sure they don’t want to hear any chirping from their OHL and QMJHL cousins. In the past 10 years, the WHL has only won the Memorial Cup once – the 2014 Edmonton Oil Kings. And I’m sure that doesn’t sit well with ‘Dub’ supporters.