In a perfectly Maritime moment few could have imagined when they were in the cellar three years ago, the Halifax Mooseheads have become the first team to qualify for the upcoming Mastercard Memorial Cup, joining the host Saskatoon Blades.
With their emphatic 5-1 win that sealed a 4-1 President's Cup final win over the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, the Mooseheads matched the 2012 Saint John Sea Dogs' fate of nearly running the table in the playoffs. With their 16-1 post-season, they became the ninth team to go through the QMJHL post-season with only one loss.
Halifax hit hard times from 2008-09 through 2010-11 when it missed the playoffs twice in a row and also finished fourth-last in the 18-team QMJHL. But a rebuilding program centred around 17-year-old top prospects Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon and Czech scorer Martin Frk changed the culture in the Nova Scotia, leading to a dominant season and Friday's celebration at a sold-out Halifax Metro Centre.
From Willy Palov:
"It's amazing," said veteran defenceman Konrad Abeltshauser. "In front of this crowd, my last junior game in the Metro Centre - if there was a movie it couldn't have been written any better.
"It was four tough years for me and 19 for this city and this franchise. We all did it together. It just feels amazing to get rewarded for all this hard work we've put in over the years. It's finally paid off."
... "It's been a long time coming for everybody," said centre Nathan MacKinnon, who grew up in Cole Harbour as a hard-core fan of the team. "It's definitely one of the best feelings of my life and I can guarantee it's the same for every one of my teammates." (Halifax Chronicle-Herald)
Drouin received the Guy Lafleur Trophy as playoff MVP after winning the scoring race with 35 points in 17 games. MacKinnon and Frk tied for second with 33.
The Mooseheads will hope to fare better in the Memorial Cup than Saint John did 12 months ago. The Sea Dogs bowed out in the Memorial Cup semi-final to the eventual champion Shawinigan Cataractes.
Halifax, whose regular-season win totals have increased from 13 in '09-10 to 20 to 39 to a record-tying 58, began the playoffs by sweeping the Sea Dogs 4-0. The other sweeps were the Gatineau Olympiques and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. They took 4-of-5 from the Drakkar, the only team to take a game from the Mooseheads in the post-season.
Their rebuilding began in earnest in 2011, when GM Cam Russell scouted Drouin and MacKinnon at the Canada Winter Games in Halifax. MacKinnon declined to report to Baie-Comeau after being chosen No. 1 overall in the QMJHL entry draft. Russell acquired MacKinnon from the Drakkar in exchange for two players, Francis Turbide and Carl Gélinas, and three first round draft picks. Halifax took Drouin with its No. 2 overall choice and used the No. 11 pick, which it had acquired in the Lewiston MAINEiacs dispersal draft, to choose starting goalie Zach Fucale.
Halifax's captain, Stefan Fournier, who had 29 points in the playoffs, is one of the former MAINEiacs still in the QMJHL. Fucale, also up for the 2013 NHL draft, went 16-1, playing all but 24 seconds of the 2013 playoffs. He had a 2.02 GAA and a save percentage of .918.
Halifax will start their Memorial Cup tournament on Saturday, playing the winner of the WHL final series between the Portland Winterhawks and the Edmonton Oil Kings. Saskatoon opens the tournament against the OHL representative; Barrie leads London 3-2 in that championship series.
(s/t for the video to Halifax author Stephen Kimber, @skimber.)