There's just one trophy in the eyes of players and coaches for the Saint John Sea Dogs that will fulfill the most memorable season in the six-year existence of the franchise.
That would be the MasterCard Memorial Cup, which gets under way on Friday when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Sea Dogs battle the host Mississauga St. Michael's Majors at Hershey Centre. Additionally, the Ontario Hockey League champion Owen Sound Attack will battle the Western Hockey League winner, Kootenay Ice, on the second day of the nine-day, round robin tournament.
After spending the last 15 weeks of the regular season as the top team in Canadian junior hockey, Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant feels anything less than a Memorial Cup would be a disappointment. Saint John won its first President's Cup following a six-game series victory over the Gatineau Olympiques last week.
"Our goal all along was to reach the Memorial Cup and see how it goes," Gallant told NHL.com. "We've had a great season here and we'd be disappointed if we lost out. That said, we know things happen in the playoffs … we just hope to stay healthy, hope to play to our limitations and work hard every night."
Gallant's club should be favored heading into the tourney, which concludes May 29 with the championship final at 7 p.m. ET. All Memorial Cup games will be televised on the NHL Network-U.S.
Not only does Saint John possess six players drafted and the current property of NHL teams, but, according to NHL Central Scouting, nine players are ranked among the top 124 North American skaters eligible for the 2011 Entry Draft.
Among those players who could potentially go in the opening round at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., on June 24 are forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, Zack Phillips and Tomas Jurco and defenseman Nathan Beaulieu. Huberdeau was the first 100-plus point producer in team history, finishing with 105 points and 43 goals in the regular season. Phillips was second on the team in scoring (38 goals, 95 points), while Jurco had 31 goals and 56 points. Beaulieu, the top-rated defenseman from the league, finished with 12 goals, 45 points and a plus-44 rating.
"Huberdeau is the type of player who can change the outcome of a game suddenly and quickly," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau told NHL.com. "He's displayed unbelievably quick hands and an ability to set up and score goals. He definitely has NHL hands and playmaking ability."
Having the biggest impact among those NHL-drafted standouts is Russian wing Stanislav Galiev, who is second to Huberdeau in playoff scoring with 10 goals and 27 points in 19 games. Galiev was drafted in the third round by the Washington Capitals last June.
Huberdeau has 16 goals and 30 points, along with a team-leading plus-13 rating, 6 power-play goals and 1.58 points-per game average in the postseason. Phillips, who returned to practice on Wednesday following a two-game absence with an upper-body injury, is third on the team in playoff scoring with 24 points (9 goals, 15 assists).
"I think all four (draft-eligible) players are high candidates to go in the first round and that'll be outstanding," Gallant said. "They've all played very well and they've been a key part of our success as a hockey club, for sure."
Owen Sound, which scored a 3-2 overtime victory over Mississauga in Game 7 of the Robertson Cup Final, was led by right wing Robby Mignardi. In 22 playoff games, Mignardi, who is in his third and final year of eligibility for the Entry Draft, had 15 goals, including 8 with the man advantage, and 24 points. He earned the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as Playoff MVP.
The top 2011 draft eligible player on the Attack roster is right wing Andrew Fritsch, who had 2 assists and a plus-3 rating in seven playoff games. Central Scouting had Fritsch rated No. 84 on its final report, and defenseman Keevin Cutting, rated No. 87, has produced 2 goals and a plus-7 rating in 22 playoffs contests.
First-line center Joey Hishon, drafted in the first round (No. 17) by the Colorado Avalanche last year, is tied with Mignardi for the team scoring lead with 24 points. He owns a team-leading 19 assists. Attack left wing Garrett Wilson, taken by the Florida Panthers in the fourth round in 2009, is third on the team in scoring with 21 points, including 11 goals.
The Kootenay Ice, who scored a five-game series victory over the Portland Winterhawks in their league championship series, were led by 2011 draft-eligible goalie Nathan Lieuwen. Lieuwen, who was named series MVP, was 16-2-1 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 19 playoff games.
Offensively, Kootenay has been led by Matt Fraser (17 goals, 10 assists), Max Reinhart (15 goals, 12 assists) and Cody Eakin (11 goals, 16 assists). Fraser signed with the Dallas Stars in 2010, Reinhart was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the third round in 2010 and the red-headed Eakin was the Washington Capitals third-round choice in 2009. The team has two promising 2011 draft-eligible defensemen in 6-foot-4 3/4, 187-pound Jonathan Neibrandt and 6-foot, 180-pound Jagger Dirk. They are both undoubtedly following the lead of fellow blue liner Brayden McNabb (3 goals, 24 assists), a third-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2009.
Host Mississauga has been led by four NHL-drafted forwards this postseason, including Devante Smith-Pelly (15 goals, 6 assists) of the Anaheim Ducks (second round, 2010), Maxim Kitsyn (10 goals, 9 assists) of the Los Angeles Kings (sixth round, 2010), Justin Shugg (10 goals, 9 assists) of the Carolina Hurricanes (fourth round, 2010) and captain Casey Cizikas (5 goals, 14 assists) of the New York Islanders (fourth round, 2009).
Defenseman Stuart Percy, rated No. 53 on Central Scouting's final list, has made major contributions on the back end for the St. Michael's Majors with 2 goals, 12 points and a plus-11 rating in 20 playoff games. Center Joseph Cramarossa, No. 63 on the list, has 2 goals, 4 points and a plus-5 rating in 14 games.
In the last 38 tournaments since the round-robin format was established for the Memorial Cup, the WHL has won the title 18 times, the OHL has claimed 14 titles and the QMJHL has garnered seven titles. The OHL's Windsor Spitfires won the last two Memorial Cup crowns. The Spokane Chiefs were the last WHL team to win it in 2008 and the Quebec Remparts were the last QMJHL team to capture the trophy in 2006.
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