When I started last week’s column, I had a feeling that I’d require a little more space and time to fit in all my thoughts about several leagues’ worth of play-off hockey happenings, and I was right.
I was also half-right about the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League finals having a Nova Scotian flavour. The Halifax Mooseheads, who will also host this year’s Memorial Cup, should reach the league final for the third time in their 25-year history, barring a massive collapse from the 3-1 series lead they had built up at the time of this writing. Here’s hoping they can repeat their 2013 feat of winning the QMJHL President’s Cup and the Memorial Cup, this time in front of a boisterous hometown audience.
Sadly, the Rimouski Oceanic and Whycocomagh-born goaltender Colton Ellis won’t join the Mooseheads, as the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies eclipsed Rimouski in five games late last week. I still predict Ellis and his team will return in full force this fall, while I also predict that Halifax and Rouyn-Noranda will get sick of each other after playing in the QMJHL finals and then both qualifying for the Memorial Cup.
Continuing with the familiarity-breeds-contempt theme; the Strait Pirates and Sackville Blazers ended a tight, back-and-forth Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League final with the Blazers taking the league title in six games. I’m starting to get the sense that these teams might have developed a rivalry worthy of the Strait’s colourful histories with their geographical rivals like the Antigonish Bulldogs and the Glace Bay Miners.
Consider this: The Pirates won their last league title by beating Sackville on the road in 2002, the second time in a three-year span that they’d downed the Blazers in the NSJHL final. Sackville got its revenge in three memorable visits to the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre – taking the 2005 Don Johnson Cup with a 1-0 win in the gold-medal game of the Atlantic championship and defeating the Pirates in two other provincial finals, one of which ended with a Game 7 overtime victory at Veterans’ Memorial Arena.
Also in the “We’ve Got To Stop Meeting Like This” department: Are there any four words that strike more fear into a Toronto Maple Leaf fan’s heart than “Game Seven in Boston?” Seriously, Leaf Nation has endured more play-off heartache in one decade, the bulk of it at the hands of the Bruins, than most hockey fans suffer in their entire lives. Even a Montreal Canadiens fan like me feels sorry for the Blue and White and their faithful this week.
Not too sorry, mind you. I’m delighted that a regular-season finale that offers such hope for the Canadiens’ future came in a battle with the Leafs. This year’s Habs were already an exciting young team, and the shockingly-amazing debut of Ryan Poehling – with a hat trick in regulation and the shoot-out winner against Toronto – bodes well for a team already boasting a solid young core. Names like Poehling, Kotkaniemi, Domi, Gallagher, Danault, Drouin, Byron, Kulak, and Petry – to say nothing of Nick Suzuki, who I expect to see wearing the CH this fall – are not far away from being etched on the Stanley Cup.
That Habs-Leafs season-ender was, of course, part of a bittersweet night that included the official sign-off for Bob Cole, my favourite hockey broadcaster over my three decades of official NHL fandom.
He tried to shrug off his lengthy farewell tour, greeting a video tribute at Winnipeg during a Jets-Habs game the previous week with a sardonic, “Ah well, here we go again.” But at the end of his final game – which featured Cole’s trademark enthusiasm and a professionalism worth emulating for play-by-play announcers half a century younger – the finality of his duties seemed to wash over him in a wave of wistfulness. After Poehling scored the Habs’ shootout winner, the resulting “YES, SIR!” was vintage Cole – a sharp contrast to the subdued “…and that’s all she wrote” that followed the final Montreal save which sealed the Canadiens’ win.
I miss Bob Cole already.
I truly wasn’t prepared for Canada’s three play-off teams – the Leafs, Jets, and Calgary Flames – to all tumble out of post-season contention in the first round, especially given that all three were tagged as potential Stanley Cup finalists this year. Mind you, I’m sure every hockey pool in North America was blasted to smithereens when the defending Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, joined the Canadian clubs, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the regular-season champion Tampa Bay Lightning on the sidelines.
And with that, I promise my faithful column-readers a break from hockey next week. Unless you’d like to read 800 words about the Columbus Blue Jackets or the St. Louis Blues. No? All right. We’ll move off the ice and onto something else.