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Kitchener, Spokane, Belleville and Gatineau the CHL's Final Four at the MemCup

NHL.com @NHL

Three front-running hockey clubs and one surprise make up the field for the 2008 MasterCard Memorial Cup.

The host Kitchener Rangers, Belleville Bulls, Spokane Chiefs and Gatineau Olympiques are the final four teams out of the 60 that started chasing a Canadian Hockey League championship in September.

The Rangers and the Olympiques open the tournament Friday (7 p.m. ET), followed by the Chiefs against the Bulls on Saturday (4 p.m. ET).

The Rangers, Bulls and Chiefs established themselves as Memorial Cup contenders during the season, but the Olympiques were more of a dark horse.

Host Kitchener is the favourite on paper because of a CHL-high 53 wins, an Ontario Hockey League title and a No .1 ranking in the CHL 15 of the last 16 weeks of the season.

The Rangers have soldiered through the playoffs with backup goaltender Josh Uniced because of Steve Mason's knee injury early in the post-season.

They dominated Belleville 4-1 in Monday's Game 7of the OHL championship series without two injured defencemen.

The Rangers' strength is their top line of Matt Halischuk, Justin Azevedo and Nick Spaling.

Halischuk scored the overtime winner for Canada in the gold-medal game of the world junior hockey championship in January. Azevedo was the OHL's outstanding player of both the regular season and post-season.

But Belleville has reasons to be optimistic about their Memorial Cup chances as OHL runner-up.

Down 3-0 in the OHL final series and trailing the Rangers 4-1 in the second period of Game 4, they won that game 5-4 in overtime and the next two to force a Game 7.

Power forward Shawn Matthias returned to the Bulls lineup Monday after a bout with mononucleosis and scored a goal in his first post-season game.

The Bulls can also draw inspiration from the Quebec Remparts, who won the Memorial Cup two years ago as the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's runner-up.

Gatineau wasn't the favourite to take the QMJHL, but Benoit Groulx is a talented coach and the Olympiques won the QMJHL title for the third time in six years under him.

He coached the Olympiques to the Cup championship game in 2003 and 2004 - losing to Kitchener and Kelowna respectively

"Being my third time, I know now how tough it is to go there to this tournament," Groulx said. "It's a question of opportunity. We have to seize the moment.

"It's important to realize we have to play our best hockey of the year. We have to finish this tournament with no regrets."

The line of Claude Giroux, Paul Byron and Matthew Pistilli is Gatineau's answer to Kitchener's Halischuk, Spaling and Azevedo. Giroux also played for Canada at the world junior tournament.

"We know we're probably not the best team on the ice for sure because we don't feel we're the best team in our league," Groulx said. "We were the best team at the right period of the year. We played our best hockey the last month."

Spokane won 50 games en route to a Western Hockey League title. Their launching pad to the Memorial Cup was taking a marathon seven-game series against the Tri-City Americans in the Western Conference final.

The Americans were the best team in the WHL's regular season and beating them propelled the Chiefs to a four-game sweep of Lethbridge in the league final.

"It almost helped define our team, the character and will we had as a group," Chiefs captain Chris Bruton said of the win against Tri-City. "It almost felt like we could do anything."

The Chiefs don't have the marquee names Kitchener, Belleville and Gatineau have, but they're the healthiest and most rested heading into the Cup.

"Are we the most talented team in the history of hockey? Probably not," head coach Bill Peters said. "We have good skill and it's a competitive group each and every day."

The team with the best record in the Memorial Cup round robin gets a bye into the final May 25. The clubs finishing second and third meet in the semifinal May 23 with the winner advancing to the championship game.

Teams tied for third play a tiebreaker game and tied games in the tournament are decided by overtime.

The Memorial Cup has been handed out to Canada's junior hockey champions since 1919.

Players in the tournament are 16 to 21 years old. Half of the players drafted by the NHL since 1969 have come from the CHL.

The CHL, which is the umbrella organization for the Western, Ontario and Quebec major junior hockey leagues, extended the tournament by one day in 2006 to incorporate a day of rest before the final. Prior to that, the team that won the bye also won the championship game 12 of 13 times.

Notes: The last four Memorial Cups have been won by a team from the host league and three of the four were the hometown clubs: Giants, Vancouver (2007); Quebec Remparts, Moncton (2006); Knights, London (2005); Rockets, Kelowna (2004) . . . INSINC will carry all Memorial Cup games on the Internet on pay-per-view. . . The longest Memorial Cup game since it went to a tournament format in 1972 was 95 minutes 41 seconds three years ago in London, Ont., where Ottawa edged Kelowna 3-2 in double overtime.

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