The Saint John Sea Dogs have served notice they are still the team to beat at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Zach Phillips scored twice and the defending champion Sea Dogs used greater effort and more of their considerable skill to defeat the Edmonton Oil Kings 5-2 on Monday night and create a four-way tie for the tournament lead.
It is the first time all the teams have been tied with 1-1 records since the current four-team format was adopted in 1983.
For Saint John, it was a much stronger performance, particularly from their top talents like Phillips, Jonathan Huberdeau and Charlie Coyle, than their listless loss to the London Knights in their opening game on Saturday.
“It’s really just our work ethic,” said Phillips. “When we work hard, there aren’t many teams that can beat us.”
The Western Hockey League champion Oil Kings are back in action Tuesday night against Ontario Hockey League winners London, while Saint John faces what is sure to be an emotional final round-robin game on Wednesday against their Quebec Major Junior Hockey League rival Shawinigan Cataractes.
Huberdeau, Danick Gauthier and Ryan Tesink also scored for the Sea Dogs, while Kristians Pelss and Stephane Legault replied for Edmonton, which beat the host Cataractes in their first game.
Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant singled out Tysink as an inspiration as he was crushed by a Griffith Reinhart hit in the first period and rebounded with a solid two-way game.
It was an important win for Saint John, as only one team has ever started 0-2 and won the tournament — the 2009 Windsor Spitfires.
“We try to steer clear of what the game means and just play our game,” said Phillips. “That’s what we did tonight, and it worked.”
The Oil Kings, who were coming off a two-day break, must now make a quick turnaround to face a London side that plays a tight defensive game and likes to surprise opponents on counterattacks.
“We just couldn’t get it done,” said forward Curtis Lazar. “We need to pick up the effort, but it’s short-term memory time now.
“This is bitter, but we need to get a good night’s sleep and forget about it.”
Lazar also took a massive hit in the first period and responded in the second with what appeared to be a knee-on-knee hit on Phillips, although no penalty was called. Phillips limped to the bench in pain, but returned before the end of the period.
“That hit on Phillips was borderline,” Lazar admitted. “I felt bad.
“I said sorry to him and I think he was a little surprised.”
Phillips said he was hit by Lazar’s knee and that it hurt for a few minutes, but he said he will be fine.
Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal said Lazar’s line with Legault and Henrik Samuelsson was his best because of their energetic play, but said there were some passengers on his team who will need to pick up their game against London.
“They’ll trap you and try to score on 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready for that.”
The slow, choppy ice that has plagued the tournament during a spring hot spell was evident again in strange bounces and unusual goals. Organizers have called in ice expert Mike Craig to help improve the playing surface for the rest of the event.
The Sea Dogs got a quirky one early as Phillips fired the puck at a slim angle from the right boards and it got between Laurent Brossoit’s pad and the post at 4:23.
Edmonton tied it at 7:03 when Pelss tipped a high Mark Pysyk point shot past Mathieu Corbeil on a power play.
Huberdeau, who rebounded from a weak opening game with a stronger effort, showed his skill as he got behind the defence to take a Coyle pass and beat Brossoit with a deke 4:42 into the second frame.
Gauthier made it a two-goal lead at 15:53 with a partially blocked shot that bounced crazily past Brossoit, but Legault got it back 1:03 later as he took a feed from Samuelsson and put a move on Corbeil.
Phillips put the game out of reach with his second of the game with 1:37 left to play and Tesink added an empty net goal.
With each of the teams winning at least once, it guarantees there will be a tiebreaker game on Thursday night to determine one semifinalist.
Notes: Organizers fined the London Knights $1,000 for an incident near the end of their 6-2 loss to Shawinigan on Sunday, in which Greg McKegg and Matt Rupert threw punches at the Cataractes’ Alex Grandmaison from the bench. . . Saint John made two changes, putting Devon Oliver-Dares and Oliver Cooper into the lineup and scratching Spencer MacDonald and Jason Cameron.