Windsor, Ontario -- In a tournament of champions, anything can happen. Saint John learned this the hard way with a roller-coaster 24 hours on Monday and Tuesday at the Memorial Cup.
One night they were on the wrong end of a drubbing of historical proportions, losing 12-5 to the OHL champion Erie Otters.
The next night they erased that goal deficit by shutting out the WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds 7-0, claiming the first clean sheet of the week to book their spot in Friday's semifinal.
"We've been working hard this whole week," forward Matthew Highmore said afterward. Relief was palpable on the faces of the various Sea Dogs scattered around in postgame scrums. "We continued to believe, and we did a really good job regrouping in the last 24 hours and played a good game of hockey."
Highmore, 21, is the oldest member of a Saint John club that has improved steadily over the five seasons he's played there. An alternate captain in his overage season, the Halifax, Nova Scotia, native caught the eye of the Blackhawks around Christmastime and signed a pro contract with Chicago in early March.
"I've been working for the last 15 years -- since I started playing hockey -- to get a pro contract, and it was a big goal of mine," he said. "You obviously don't put your own goals ahead of team goals, but it was a very nice accomplishment. By no means is the job done."
Highmore is a do-it-all player for Saint John, one of many on a deep and experienced team. But even on a roster littered with NHL draft picks, Highmore has been the team's dependable first-line center, matching up against other team's best players and stepping up in all situations.
"He's just ultra-consistent, really works his butt off, smart player too," Development Coach Derek Plante said.
Against Erie, Highmore's line was overwhelmed by the Otters' top units, but the next night he and linemates Bokondji Imama and Mathieu Joseph showed that they could also dominate a game, combining to produce three of the Sea Dogs' seven goals against Seattle. Highmore picked up two helpers, his first points of the tournament; his second came after a strong move to the net that showcased his quickness and strength, producing a rebound goal.
"He's very consistent, which allows his speed to translate," Plante said. "A lot of guys are fast, but if they don't use that speed, it doesn't do them any good. One of the things we really like about him is his work ethic, and he does have good hockey sense. He's just consistently making plays."
If Highmore has speed and consistency on his side, teammate and fellow Blackhawks prospect Nathan Noel stands out for his ability to disrupt, but it wasn't always this way. In the past, Noel stood out to scouts as a creative offensive threat after a couple of productive seasons in the Shattuck St. Mary's high school program. Over the last few seasons with Saint John, the 20-year-old has found a different role to embrace.
"I've developed into a defensive, energy-type guy," Noel said. "Physical, just in-your-face hockey. You obviously keep [the offensive instincts], but you want to work on all parts of your game and keep striving to get better."
Plante says that evolution is necessary for some players to succeed at the pro level. Not all of them can be top-line stars, after all.
"If you think you're going to go to a Patrick Kane spot [in the lineup], it's probably not going to happen," he explained. "But there might be three other places where you could play if you can evolve and learn to use your strengths in a different way. The guys who are willing to do that -- adapt and use the hockey sense that they have -- they can be really effective players for a team."
Noel, who signed his own pro contract in late April, and Highmore have both been with Saint John for the entirety of their QMJHL careers, but they were also teammates long before that, playing Peewee together in New Brunswick before Noel left for Minnesota. They've also been roommates on the road, so Highmore naturally turned to the Blackhawks' 2016 fourth-round pick for advice after signing with the team.
"Being in the Chicago organization now, we can bounce ideas off each other," Highmore said. "It's been really cool. There's a comfort zone. We're both just very excited about the opportunity we have and we know that it won't be easy, but we look forward to it."
"I've known him for a long time, he's a good guy and I'm happy to be in the same organization as him," Noel said, before adding with a smile, "Bit of a strange guy sometimes."
Both have nothing but effusive praise for the Sea Dogs organization, Highmore saying it's been "extremely special" to reach the Memorial Cup with the current group and Noel calling his time with the team "nothing but excellent."
"I've loved every step of the way," he added. "great group of guys, and it's going to be sad to see it come to an end. Hopefully we can finish strong."
The two prospects will traverse along the same path for a while longer, at least, but first they need to slay the giants -- Erie, having lost to Windsor in the final round-robin match on Wednesday, will be Saint John's opponent once more on Friday in the semifinal. Highmore said the Seattle game was a step in the right direction, but the team won't be satisfied with just one win in the tournament.
What would it mean to complete the journey and win here with Saint John?
"There probably wouldn't be a whole lot of words for it," Highmore said. "We know in our locker room we have a chance, and we're looking to take advantage of it."