Surprising, disappointing Memorial Cup opener for Cats

By Nathan White

The Calgary Hitmen shocked the Moncton Wildcats with a third-period comeback capped by a fluke bounce that gave them a 5-4 win in their MasterCard Memorial Cup opener Saturday. Tyler Shattock took advantage of a crazy bounce of the boards to tuck home the game-winner with just 1:18 to go. With the host Brandon Wheat Kings getting thumped 9-3 Friday, each team has a game under its belt. Some thoughts on the tournament so far:

-The Wildcats, who clinched the QMJHL championship Monday, had the shortest turnaround, and it worked to their advantage early. They outshot the Hitmen 13-3 in the opening period, but fatigue may have crept in after they ran their lead to 3-0 in the second period. Tyler Fiddler’s goal to make it 3-1 with 1:08 to go in the second was the first crack in the armor, sending the Hitmen to the locker room happy and setting up the third-period charge. Moncton had a historically tough road to the Memorial Cup, so it’s possible they won’t have the gas to stay with teams that had extra rest to get ready.

-The Wildcats just don’t blow leads like that with defense-first coach Danny Flynn behind the bench. The last (and only) time Moncton has given up four goals in the third period was in 4-2 loss Jan. 10, 2008 at Rouyn-Noranda. Fiddler getting the Hitmen within two late in the second was huge, as the Wildcats have only once blown a three-goal lead in the third period in Flynn’s three seasons, in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Saint John Sea Dogs on Nov. 7, 2007.

-Another thing that almost never happens? Wildcats goalie Nicola Riopel falling asleep. I feel like a jerk blaming Riopel for that wild bounce off the boards, but had he pounced on it with the glove, Shattock wouldn’t have been able to poke it past him. And it’s not like the bad bounces in Brandon’s Westman Place are a new phenomenon. The teams were talking about the lively boards beforehand, so Riopel should have been ready for anything. After allowing five goals on 27 shots, count on the veteran goalie and future Philadelphia Flyer to “bounce” back with a huge performance.

-Injuries are a factor so far. Moncton is still missing top sniper and Anaheim Ducks prospect Nicolas Deschamps. Calgary, meanwhile, lost defenseman Jaynen Rissling to injury, forcing forward Cody Sylvester to drop back. Sylvester was an admirable fill-in, but it’s not an ideal situation. The Hitmen will also likely be without WHL leading scorer Brandon Kozun, who tried to play Saturday, but was a non-factor.

-Brandon endured embarrassment at home Friday. The last time a true host team lost by six or more was all the way back in 1986, when the Portland Winter Hawks dropped the tie-breaker 8-1 to the Kamloops Blazers. Portland was a back-up host team that year, replacing the New Westminster Bruins, who were victimized by Vancouver hosting Expo ’86. Ken Hitchcock coached that Kamloops team, led by 173-point scorer Rob Brown, who also had 171 penalty minutes. I wonder if any player anywhere has ever outscored such a high PIM total? Anyway, back to 2010.

-The Wheat Kings face the Wildcats Sunday. Both coaches, particularly Brandon’s Kelly McCrimmon, have to remind their troops that one loss is not the end of the world. And one win is enough to stay alive for a tie-breaker game. As Danny Flynn said after Saturday’s stunner: “Probably the biggest lesson you learn in hockey is what you learn the first day you put on a pair of skates: You fall, you get up, you fall again, and you get up again.” Moncton shook off a gut-punch of an overtime loss in the QMJHL final and won Game 5 the next night to seize control of the series.

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~ by Nathan White on May 15, 2010.

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