SASKATOON — In a game full of emotion, the Saskatoon Blades took a different approach in their game against the Halifax Mooseheads at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
“One of our mottos in this tournament is to play like robots whistle to whistle,” said Blades forward Josh Nicholls.
The idea is to keep an even keel – regardless of the opponent -- and disregard the many momentum swings faced during a game.
The game plan worked as the Blades skated to a stunning 5-2 victory over the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions. For the first 50 minutes of the game, the Blades kept Halifax’s high-powered offence – led by the top line of Jonathan Drouin, Nathan MacKinnon, and Martin Frk -- in check. They were physical and made life in the crease difficult for Mooseheads goalie Zach Fucale.
“We were wearing them down,” said Nicholls, a New York Rangers prospect. “You could see their frustration. They were starting to come at us after the whistles and stuff like that. They have a highly skilled team and we knew we’d have our hands full, and we knew what it would take and we were able to do that.”
Halifax’s frustration was evident. Having gone through the QMJHL playoffs with a near-perfect 16-1 record, losing for the top-ranked team in the country had almost become a foreign concept. On Saturday night in their opening game of the tournament, they rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the second period to beat the Portland Winterhawks.
This time, in front of a noisy partisan Blades audience at Credit Union Centre, their comeback started a little too late.
“We have to make sure we play our game and not get frustrated,” said Halifax captain Trey Lewis, whose third-period penalty for a late hit on Nicholls showed just that. “We knew they were going to be physical and we knew they were going to battle. We knew that. We just didn’t battle back.”
There aren’t many who expected Saskatoon to win a game here considering they were swept out of the Western Hockey League playoffs by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round. It was the Blades’ first win since a 3-2 shootout victory over the Edmonton Oil Kings in March. The last time they had beaten a team in the post-season was on April 3, 2011, when they beat the Prince Albert Raiders 2-1 in overtime.
The prospects for the tournament host team were tempered, to say the least. Even people in the city weren’t holding out high hope for their Blades. Beating the No. 1 team in Canada changes that and it was a statement the Blades desperately needed to make.
“There are a lot of doubters in this city,” said Blades forward Lukas Sutter. “This was huge to get the city behind us. That's the biggest thing -- because there was a lot of doubt in this city (that we could win).”
Despite what was at stake here for the Blades, the players said they didn’t really feel any additional pressure to win. Goalie Andrey Makarov, who helped backstop Russia to a gold medal in 2012, said the team did an “unbelievable job” not letting the moment – complete with the rabid fans – take them away from their robotic approach.
“It was very challenging,” said Sutter of keeping his emotions in check. "We’ve got an old group with a lot of composure and a lot of maturity and again that shone through for us tonight.”
In the second intermission, with the Blades holding a 2-0 lead, Nicholls said the team was full of energy and confidence in the dressing room.
“We were laughing like, ‘We aren’t even tired here. Let’s keep pushing it,' ” said the 21-year-old. “It’s a credit to all our hard work and the organization putting us through a huge 50 days (of training) because it really paid off (Sunday).”
The team had a 51-day wait between the end of their short playoff run and the start of the tournament. And you can believe they heard it from people around town or read about it in the newspapers, on websites and on Twitter. Trying not to let the snark and doubt get to you is all part of being a robot, too.
“You try and tune it out but it’s pretty difficult to do,” said Sutter, who left the game briefly after appearing to injure his shoulder in the second period, of the haters. “There’s a lot of doubt. It’s a very fan-based city – they’ll love you one day and hate you the next day.”
Sunday night was definitely a love-fest between the Blades and many of the 8,934 fans inside the Credit Union Centre. Prior to the game fans had been given plastic clappers to help make noise in a building that had been rather staid for the tournament’s first two games. The building came to life and with the final minute winding down, people began to litter the ice with the free handouts. A folding chair somehow also made its way on the ice from the stands.
“You see the love and the passion for the game in this city with a crowd like that,” said Sutter.
“It was a lot of fun.”