The highest-scoring major junior hockey team in Canada heads to the MasterCard Memorial Cup feeling even more buoyant about their attack.
In their Ontario Hockey League championship series against North Bay, the Guelph Storm scored twice in the last 30 seconds to win Game 3. Guelph also came from two goals down and scored the winner with 26 seconds remaining in Game 5 to clinch the title.
The Storm did pour 10 goals into the Battalion's net to take Game 4. But Guelph's captain considers the white-knuckle victories the more valuable tests of their firepower for the national championship starting Friday in London, Ont.
"It's good for the confidence, but also being able to win games that way, I think it's really important especially going into the Memorial Cup," said Matt Finn. "One (loss) can ruin your chances of winning (the tournament).
"We have a lot of confidence in ourselves right now and we believe even when we're down one or two, we have a team that can come back and put the puck in the net."
The Storm will play in the Canadian Hockey League's championship tournament for a fifth time in their 23-year history and are looking for their first title. They were winless in their last appearance in 2004.
In their fourth season under head coach and former NHL defenceman Scott Walker, Guelph scored a CHL-high 340 goals during the regular season.
The Storm were one of three OHL teams that cracked the 100-point, 300-goal barrier and all were in the Midwest Division. Guelph eliminated the other two — the London Knights and the Erie Otters — in five games in the second and third round of the playoffs respectively.
The host Knights will play their first real game in over a month in Friday's tournament opener against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion, which was to be determined Tuesday night.
The Storm's first foe Saturday is the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Oil Kings, who earned their second trip to the Memorial Cup in three years with a Game 7 win over the Portland Winterhawks on Monday.
Guelph clinched the OHL title last week and has the easiest travel of the three league champions. London is just over an hour's drive west.
"Technically, is it good to have an extra couple days to get guys healed and rested? Probably," Walker said. "But you also get that, 'Now what do we do? How do we manage our players and their time off and emotions?'"
With half a dozen players in his lineup who posted 60-plus points during the regular season, Walker has different weapons he can double-shift at the end of game if need be.
"I don't think we want to be leaving too many games to the last minute-thirty to win, but everything is an experience and you have to draw on your experiences," he says.
Forwards Kerby Rychel, Zach Mitchell, OHL playoff MVP Robbi Fabri, Scott Kosmachuk and Jason Dickinson combined for 54 playoff goals. Finn, a Toronto Maple Leafs prospect, and Nick Ebert tied for the post-season lead in goals by defencemen with five apiece.
"You're putting those guys out every other shift, the chances are you're going to get offensive chances," Walker said. "They know how to score, but they also are comfortable playing in tight games."
Rychel, the son of former NHL winger and Spitfires GM Warren Rychel, was Guelph's Game 5 hero with both third-period goals.
Guelph acquired goaltender Justin Nichols from the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last September for a third-round draft pick.
The 18-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont., gained the starting job in Guelph and convinced Storm management that they didn't need to go looking for another goaltender at the trade deadline. Nichols went 16-4 through the playoffs carrying a goals-against average of 2.63 and a save percentage of .919.
What Guelph lacks is the players with previous Memorial Cup experience. This is London's third straight trip to the tournament after winning the OHL title the last two years. The Oil Kings were also in it two years ago and lost in a tiebreaker game to host Shawinigan.
"London has been there a couple of times so they know what it's like, but ... we've played against London and played high-scoring offensive teams and different styles of hockey," Finn says.
"We know we have to bring it every night to win. We did exactly that and will continue to."
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