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Kitchener's Azevedo looks to cap season in style

by Brad Holland

Kitchner Rangers forward Justin Azevedo has a chance to achieve the 'triple-crown' of junior hockey if he can win the Memorial Cup MVP.
What do Kitchener Rangers forward Justin Azevedo and racehorse Big Brown, winner of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and the 2008 Preakness Stakes races, have in common?

Each is two-thirds of the way toward a very special achievement.

And while even Azevedo would admit his own pursuit may not be as difficult a challenge as Big Brown's, it would nonetheless be an impressive accomplishment.

"I have had a great season so far," Azevedo told Aaron Bell of after Friday's 6-5 victory against the Gatineau Olympiques. "Having that game tonight was a good confidence booster. Coming into the season I just wanted to keep everything simple and just play the way that I know how to play. Just use my speed and go to the net and bang some goals in."

Azevedo took the CHL Most Outstanding Player of the Year Award, the league's award for the top player in the regular season, and the Gretzky 99 Award, the league's award for the top player in the playoffs.

With the MVP in the Memorial Cup, Azevedo would accomplish something special, something that hasn't been accomplished since Corey Perry, forward for the Anaheim Ducks, completed the awards sweep in 2005 with the Memorial Cup champion London Knights.

However, Azvedo isn't the only horse in this race.

First on the list of challengers is Spokane Chiefs' forward Drayson Bowman, who has jumped out to the tournament lead in scoring, with four goals – including the game-winner against Azevedo's Rangers on Sunday afternoon – and six points in two Chiefs' wins.

He has been the most productive member of the tournament's most productive line thus far. He and linemates Mitch Wahl (one goal and four points in two games) and Chris Bruton (four assists in two games) make up three of the Memorial Cup's top seven scorers in the early going.

Those there forwards, along with goaltender Dustin Tokarski, have been big reasons why the Chiefs are a perfect 2-0 in the tournament. With one more win against Gatineau in their round-robin finale Tuesday, the Chiefs will secure the bye into the championship game.

"It's going to be a big game," Bowman told Aaron Bell of "They've all been big games but this one will put us in the driver's seat."

Tokarski has stopped almost 93 percent of the shots fired his way, good for tops in the tournament. His 2.40 GAA in his first two games is tops, as well. He led the WHL in almost every conceivable goaltending statistical category in the Chiefs' WHL championship run, including minutes played, wins, GAA, save percentage, shutouts, shots against and saves.

He and the Chiefs were outshot 37-29 but emerged with a 2-1 victory Sunday, a game in which Bowman had the game-winning goal and an assist. Tokarski earned the game's first star while Bowman earned the second.

But, it is not just a three-horse race among Azevedo, Tokarski and Bowman. That trio of MVP candidates will also be pressed hard from behind by the likes of Azevedo's teammate, Matt Halischuk (three goals in two games), Belleville Bulls forward Cory Tanaka (three goals and one assist in two games thus far), and Gatineau forwards Darryl Smith and Michael Stinziani, who have four points apiece in three games played.

There are many longshots with a legitimate chance at the MVP, but the most interesting could be Adam Perry, the younger brother of the last man to hit the OHL MVP trifecta -- older brother Corey.

Belleville's Adam Perry has looked sharp in the tournament, getting four assists in two games. He and Corey were teammates on London's 2005 Memorial Cup Championship team, and he would like nothing more than to match the feat with the Belleville Bulls.

With a win against the Olympiques on Monday night -- and a two-assist performance out of Perry for the second consecutive game -- he and the Bulls are that much closer.

And as anyone knows, in Bulls, as well as horses, bloodlines can play a determining factor in building a champion; and the championship team will play a major role in determining the Memorial Cup MVP.

Western Hockey League

Spokane is following the path of the 2007 Medicine Hat Tigers -- WHL champions, 2-0 record to start the Memorial Cup en route to a bye into the final game – but hope to finish off the tournament on a stronger note.

Last season, Medicine Hat earned victories against Plymouth (OHL) and Lewiston (QMJHL) before dropping its third game, 1-0, to the Vancouver Giants, the team the Tigers defeated in double overtime in the 2007 WHL championship series.

The Tigers earned the final game bye, while Vancouver pasted Plymouth 8-1 in the semi-final game. The two met for the championship for the second time in less than a month, only this time, it was the Giants who took a bite out of the Tigers.

Vancouver scored with 4:55 remaining in the third period to earn the championship, Milan Lucic took home the MVP of the tournament, and the rest is history.

This season, Spokane is well on its way to earning the bye into the championship game, where it will, in theory, carry the advantage by playing a tired opponent. If the Chiefs are able to earn a trip to the final, it will be only their second Memorial Cup Final appearance in three tries in the tournament.

Wins against Belleville in overtime and host Kitchener in regulation mean it will require either one win Tuesday to earn the bye, or its plus-2 goal differential will have to be higher than any team with a comparable 2-1 record.

Spokane won its first and only championship against host Drummondville of the QMJHL in the 1991 Memorial Cup. It was defeated 2-1 by the Guelph Storm in the 1998 semifinal when it was competing as the host team in its only other Memorial Cup appearance.
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League

What could be said by Gatineau coach and GM Benoit Groulx after watching his team battle back from two three-goal deficits against the favorite and host-team of the tournament, before losing in overtime on a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty?

Possibly something along the lines of: "Boys, if we can play with them, we can play with anyone."

That theme was carried further by the Olympiques on Monday night, when they played the OHL runner-up Belleville Bulls and played even hockey for two-and-a-half periods, before the Bulls exploded for three goals in four minutes and 49 seconds.

In battling from behind all game on Friday and forcing OT, before taking a very strong Bulls team the distance Monday, Gatineau has shown more than anyone's fair share of grit in this tournament.

Gatineau's willingness to fight to the final buzzer could help it in a tournament where goal differential plays such a big role in determining rankings. At minus-4 thus far in the tournament, it will need a big game Tuesday to battle into the play-in game. But things could be far worse if not for some individual performances that have given hope to the Olympiques' still-alive Memorial Cup dreams.

Goaltender Ryan Mior was exceptional when the game was on the line in the third period and overtime against Kitchener, stopping six of the seven overtime shots he faced before Azevedo scored the game-winner on the power play at 6:59.

The Olympiques did not record even one shot in the overtime period as they were outplayed by the Rangers almost from the drop of the puck to the final horn. If not for Mior, the game likely wouldn't even have reached overtime.

Offensive dynamo Claude Giroux, who was held in check for much of the game, recorded only one assist in the loss, but made it more than worthwhile.

Deep in the third period and doing everything possible to force OT, Giroux pulled the entire defensive scheme of the Rangers along with him from right-to-left in front of goaltender Josh Unice before throwing a no-look backhand to teammate Alexandre Quesnel, who slam-dunked his first of the Memorial Cup into an empty net.

And then of course there are Michael Stinziani and Darryl Smith, who each have four points in two games played.

Despite their 0-2 sxtart, the Olympiques know they have more than enough room for improvement, especially out of their top scorer, Giroux, who amassed an incredible 51 points in 19 games in the QMJHL playoffs. He has only put up one goal and two points thus far in his team's two games.

News and Notes –
The two goals from Belleville Bulls' Shawn Matthias on Monday night, his second and third of the tournament, could be two of the biggest goals of his career to this point. The Bulls had lost in OT in their first game against the Spokane Chiefs, and they were tied with Gatineau in the third period when Matthias took charge. Now, instead of an 0-2 record, the Bulls are 1-1 and very much alive in the hunt for their first Memorial Cup championship in only their second appearance. … Ryan Mior, who earlier this season set a record for the most games played in QMJHL history, counting both regular season and playoff matchups, has been the busiest of the four goalies at the tournament. He has faced 100 shots in 127 minutes of game action. … Olympiques' forward turned defenseman Takuma Kawai, born and raised in Eniwa, Japan, is the first Japanese-born skater to play in the Memorial Cup, according to the Canadian Press. Kawai has two assists in two Memorial Cup games. … The Bulls are getting offense from the defense, as three of their blueliners have two points or more – Shawn Lalonde and P.K. Subban, with two assists each, sit third and fourth on the Memorial Cup defensive scoring list, while Nigel Williams is tied with Ben Shutron of Kitchener for the top spot. Williams has a goal and three points in two games thus far in the tournament.

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