Twelve months ago the Windsor Spitfires found out just how difficult it is to win the Memorial Cup without a great start.
This year, they are planning on making things easier on themselves.
The OHL champion Spitfires face the host Brandon Wheat Kings in the opening game of the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup on Friday (8:00 p.m. Eastern on Rogers Sportsnet).
Last year in Rimouski, QC, the Spitfires lost their first two games in the tournament and needed to win four straight games – including a tie-breaker against the host Oceanic – in six days to claim the Memorial Cup for the first time in franchise history.
This year, they know that a good start against the Wheat Kings in the opener would make their road to a repeat championship that much easier.
“It’s really big to try to make it easier on ourselves for the whole tournament,” said Spitfires forward Taylor Hall, the MVP of the Memorial Cup last year. “Not having to play catch-up hockey the whole tournament and play elimination games.”
The Spitfires capped their second straight Robertson Cup as OHL champions last Tuesday and have used the time off to get ready to play in the tournament opener against the Wheat Kings.
“I think we’re ready,” Hall said. “I think we had just the right amount of time off and hopefully we can catch them off guard because they haven’t played a lot of hockey games lately.
“We know that they are a really physical team and have a good defence corps. Their big line up front is going to be tough for us. Hopefully we can hold them off. Our start is going to be key for us to try to eliminate the crowd.”
The Spitfires have 12 returning players from last year’s Memorial Cup team as well as two others – Marc Cantin and Stephen Johnston – that played in the 2008 MasterCard Memorial Cup with the Belleville Bulls.
They are by far the most experienced team in this year’s tournament, which also includes the QMJHL champion Moncton Wildcats and WHL champion Calgary Hitmen.
“I think it is definitely an advantage,” Hall said. “Throughout these playoffs I think I’ve really learned what playoff experience means. Being here, knowing our surroundings and getting here a couple of days early was really good for us. We know that if we get down a couple of goals in the first period we’re not out of it – even if we get down a couple of games, we’re not out of it.
“We have a lot of leaders and a lot of guys with experience in our room and I think that’s going to be big for us.”
The Spitfires earned their comeback kids moniker again this year in the OHL playoffs. They lost the first three games of the Western Conference final against the Kitchener Rangers before coming back with four straight wins to advance to the OHL Championship Series. They swept the Barrie Colts in four straight games in the OHL finals and have won eight in a row coming into the Memorial Cup.
They are looking to become the first team since the Kamloops in 1994 and 1995 to win the Memorial Cup in back-to-back seasons.
“Although we can play with adversity, it’s important to win the first game and get on a roll to start the tournament,” said defenceman Ryan Ellis. “If it doesn’t happen, it’s not a big deal. We know how to deal with stuff like that. But we’d love to win the first few.”
(Nathan also is a writer for Maineiacs Post to Post and the Maine Hockey Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)