With disappointment etched on his face, Saskatoon Blades overage forward Josh Nicholls was unable to contain his emotions Thursday after the host team crashed out of the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
“It’s a tough moment obviously there leaving the ice, especially the way that it happened,” said Nicholls, his voice cracking following his final junior game, a London Knights’ 6-1 blowout victory in the tournament’s tiebreaker game. “Saskatoon’s been a great city for myself and for my family and for my hockey career.
“I call the city my home so it’s a tough way to end things.”
Bo Horvat scored on a short-handed penalty shot in the first period and Jake Patterson made 32 saves as London clinched a spot in Friday’s semifinal against the Portland Winterhawks.
The Blades were built with the sole purpose of winning this tournament, but fell well short of expectations in an up-and-down season that included a rocky start, an 18-game winning streak, a stunning first-round Western Hockey League playoff exit and a reality television crew that documented their every move.
“With an opportunity like this, you wanna go out with a win so anything less than that was going to be a true disappointment,” Blades defencemen Duncan Siemens said with tears in his eyes. “You live and breathe with those guys in that dressing room. Every year you go through it. No matter whether it’s a win or a loss, it’s always hard knowing that same group of guys won’t be in the dressing room come next year.”
The Blades were unable to regain the momentum from their upset victory over the Halifax Mooseheads, the No. 1 ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League, earlier in the tournament in either their final round-robin game against Portland or Thursday’s tiebreaker.
“After that Halifax game there was so much emotion with our team, with the fans, just everything around it and we came down and we just couldn’t regain that type of energy and emotion again,” Blades coach Lorne Molleken said. “Our players have nothing to be ashamed about. After 51 days of hard practice, they came in and left it on the ice.”
London, meanwhile, was clinical in dismantling an opponent that simply ran out of gas.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game,” said Patterson, who gave up five goals in the first period before getting pulled in London’s 9-2 round-robin loss to Halifax. “Obviously the last game I didn’t have my best game so I had to battle back and prepare mentally for it and the boys made it easy on me tonight.
“It was definitely a total team effort.”
The winner of the Portland-London semifinal game will earn a berth in Sunday’s CHL title game against Halifax.
Chris Tierney, with a goal and an assist, Seth Griffith, Ryan Rupert, Kyle Platzer and Nikita Zadorov also scored for the Ontario Hockey League champion Knights, who also defeated Saskatoon 3-2 in the tournament opener. Alex Broadhurst added two assists, while Horvat chipped in with one of his own.
“I thought we did a good job of getting back to the basics and the tendencies our team needs to perform to be successful,” Knights defenceman Scott Harrington said.
Nathan Burns scored for Saskatoon, which got 31 saves from Andrey Makarov in front of 7,895 at the Credit Union Centre before being replaced by Alex Moodie after the sixth London goal. Moodie finished with three stops.
Leading 1-0 after Horvat’s penalty shot goal in the first, the Knights pulled away with two quick strikes during a 49-second span in the second. Griffith walked around Saskatoon’s Collin Valcourt on a power play and roofed a shot past Makarov at 11:28 before Max Domi fed Tierney for a one-timer at 12:17
The Blades had a golden opportunity to get on the board earlier in the period when London’s Paxton Leroux took a four-minute penalty for checking from behind. But Saskatoon registered just one shot on the lifeless man advantage, a weak effort from Lukas Sutter, while London had three quality scoring chances.
The Knights then put the game to bed early in the third. Rupert scored on a feed from in close from Tierny at 2:16, Platzer made it 5-0 just 37 seconds later and Zadorov stretched the lead to six at 3:22.
Burns broke Patterson’s shutout bid on a nice backhand move at 11:20 for Saskatoon’s only highlight on a otherwise dismal night for the tournament hosts.
The Blades got an early power play in the opening period, but it was the Knights who struck first. After Nicholls brought Horvat down on a short-handed breakaway, the No. 15 ranked North American skater ahead of next month’s NHL draft beat Makarov with a penalty shot effort that just dribbled over the goal-line.
Saskatoon will now reflect on a season that had a little bit of everything.
“It was an interesting year, let me tell you that much,” Molleken said. “We as a team faced a lot of different adversity, a lot of different pressures. Certainly when we reflect back on this year it was a tremendous learning experience for all of us and we had lots of things to be extremely proud of.”
Notes: Portland beat London 6-3 in the round robin. ... Prior to Thursday’s game, the CHL suspended Blades defenceman Dalton Thrower for the rest of the Memorial Cup for his hit to the head on Winterhawks forward Taylor Leier in Wednesday’s final round-robin game. Portland coach Travis Green says it’s unlikely that Leier, who is suffering from post-concussion symptoms, will play again in the tournament. ... Only two teams that have played in a tiebreaker game at the Memorial Cup have gone on to hoist the trophy — the 2009 Windsor Spitfires and last year’s Shawinigan Cataractes.