All systems go as Mooseheads face Prince Albert in Memorial Cup opener
Halifax fell short in quest for QMJHL title, but 'ready to go' for Memorial Cup
It's all systems go for the Halifax Mooseheads.
The long wait for the Memorial Cup is over and the tournament kicks off tonight at Scotiabank Centre with Halifax facing the Prince Albert Raiders in an 8 p.m. start.
"We've been waiting for this day to come for a long time," said Mooseheads forward Keith Getson of Bridgewater, one of six Nova Scotians expected to be in the Halifax lineup. "We're really excited and ready to go."
Although they failed to win the QMJHL title, the Mooseheads are playing their best hockey of the year as they prepare to compete against the champions of Canada's three major junior leagues.
The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies beat them in six games to take the Q-league title and the Huskies are considered by some to be the tournament favourites. They've had an amazing year with a league-record 59 wins in the regular season and they've gone 16-4 in the playoffs.
Prince Edward Island native Noah Dobson was named playoff MVP and was a workhorse on the Rouyn-Noranda blueline. He won the Memorial Cup last year when he played with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
Leading the charge in the playoffs for the Mooseheads, who as host team automatically qualify for the Memorial Cup, has been Raphael Lavoie.
His 20 goals in 23 playoff games is a franchise record. When the Mooseheads won the Memorial Cup in 2013, superstar juniors Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon had 12 and 11 goals respectively.
Lavoie is eligible for this year's NHL draft and his stock is quickly rising.
"It was a really tough start for us in the first round but we've learned how to face adversity and I think that helped us through the rest of the playoffs, and hopefully it will teach us a lesson for the Memorial Cup," said Lavioe.
When forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx returned to the Halifax lineup two weeks ago after a bout of mononucleosis it was the first time all year the Mooseheads had an entirely healthy lineup.
The Anaheim Ducks second-round pick has been hot since his return, with 12 points in 10 games.
"I was diagnosed with mono the day before the playoffs started," said Groulx. "It was really hard mentally and physically too as I lost about 20 pounds in the first two weeks. But now I'm 100 per cent and ready to go."
Each of the four teams in the tournament — Halifax, Rouyn-Noranda, Prince Albert and OHL champions the Guelph Storm — will play three round-robin games, so a quick start is imperative. That means goaltender Alexis Gravel will need to be sharp in the Halifax net.
Gravel did not play well in the Mooseheads's first round series against Quebec but he's been one of their best players since.
"When we lost in the league final it was tough," said Gravel. "But we have a great opportunity here and we want to do some damage."
In the first round against Quebec the Mooseheads lost their first two games on home ice and had to win games six and seven to take the series. If they had lost they would have had nearly a two-month layoff before the Memorial Cup tournament.
But they came up big and then swept the Moncton Wildcats in the second round.
They followed that up with a six-game-series win over Drummondville, and they threw everything they had against powerful Rouyn-Noranda in the final.
Prince Albert beat the Vancouver Giants in a hard-fought seven-game series to win the WHL title. Raiders goaltender Ian Scott was named playoff MVP. Scott, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, played for Canada's world junior team.
Raiders coach Marc Habscheid played for the Nova Scotia Oilers of the American Hockey League in the 1984-85 season.
The Raiders were by far the best team in the western league during the regular season when they won 54 games and had 112 points.
The second game of the tournament on Saturday will feature the Guelph Storm up against Rouyn-Noranda, while the Mooseheads will play Guelph Sunday night.
One of the Storm's co-owners is Halifax native and former Dalhousie Tigers hockey player Rick Gaetz. His wife, former world champion figure skater Barbara Underhill, serves as the Storm's skating coach.