Russian goalie Andrey Makarov made 29 saves to lead the Saskatoon Blades to a 5-2 victory against the heavily favored Halifax Mooseheads on Sunday in round-robin play at the 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup before 8,934 fans at Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The loss was the second in 19 playoff games for Halifax, the Canadian Hockey League's No. 1 team, and the 11th this season.
"They are the best team in the country; they're ranked No. 1. For us to come out and play the way we did, it's a huge confidence boost for us, for the city and to prove to the rest of the competition that we're here for real," Saskatoon forward Lukas Sutter told the Halifax Chronicle Herald.
MEMORIAL CUP SCHEDULE
May 17 - London 3, Saskatoon 2
May 18 - Halifax 7, Portland 4
May 19 - Saskatoon 5, Halifax 2
May 20, 8 p.m. ET - Portland vs. London
May 21, 8 p.m. ET - Halifax vs. London
May 22, 8 p.m. ET - Saskatoon vs. Portland
May 23, 8 p.m. ET - tiebreaker game, if necessary
May 24, 8 p.m. ET - semifinal game
May 26, 7 p.m. ET - championship game
Halifax, which averaged 5.10 goals per game in the regular season and 5.38 in 18 QMJHL playoff games, had beaten Western Hockey League champion Portland Winterhawks 7-4 on Saturday.
The Saskatoon defense, which was splendid due to the play of Darren Dietz, Dalton Thrower, Graeme Craig and Duncan Siemens, held Halifax scoreless on five power-play chances. (Halifax went 2-for-6 in the victory against Portland.)
The Blades, swept in their opening-round series against the Medicine Hat Tigers in the WHL playoffs, got their first win since March 12.
"We're an older team and we're a big, strong team, so for us to be successful it's going to come from defense first, finishing checks and then getting pucks deep and wearing down their defensemen," Sutter said. "That's what we did [Sunday]."
Each team is 1-1 in the tournament. Halifax next will face the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights (1-0) on Tuesday; Saskatoon next plays Portland (0-1) on Wednesday.
After spotting Saskatoon a 4-0 lead, the Mooseheads rallied for two goals to make the finish interesting. Makarov, signed by the Buffalo Sabres as a free agent, would shut the door the remainder of the contest to secure the win.
Halifax's Stephen MacAuley scored 6:48 into the third with the teams skating 4-on-4 when he buried a loose puck from the slot. Top 2013 NHL Draft prospect Nathan MacKinnon converted a 2-on-1 with forward Martin Frk at 8:19 as Halifax pulled to within 4-2.
Makarov, who shared the Western Hockey League lead with 37 wins while posting a 2.62 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 61 regular-season games for Saskatoon, made his best save less than two minutes after MacKinnon's goal when he robbed Martin Frk with a lunging skate off a shot from the slot. Makarov was named the game's first star.
Halifax goalie Zachary Fucale, who is the top-ranked North American goaltender in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings, played admirably in defeat with 26 saves.
Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme pulled Fucale for an extra attacker with less than 1:20 left in regulation, but Makarov made a few more big saves before Josh Nicholls scored into an empty net with 1.6 seconds left to send the Saskatoon fans into a frenzy. The officials decided to run off the remaining time and send the players to their locker rooms when fans littered the ice with game clappers that were handed out prior to faceoff.
"It's a bit of a wake-up call. We have to be ready to play for a full 60 minutes," Halifax forward Darcy Ashley said. "Tonight we didn't do that, but we've still got a chance to finish first overall in this tournament. We need to beat London on Tuesday and I think you're going to see a different hockey team."
Saskatoon scored a pair of goals in the opening three minutes of the third period to grab a 4-0 lead.
Collin Valcourt jammed a shot over the goal line at the 1:43, and Dietz, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, scored a power-play goal 1:03 later off a backhand attempt from the slot that beat Fucale between his pads.
The Blades played much of the second period without Sutter, who appeared to injure his right shoulder while attempting to block a shot during a Halifax power play and never returned. Sutter, a Winnipeg 2012 draft pick who was a key on faceoffs and along the boards, returned to the game in the third period.
The Blades gave their hometown fans plenty to cheer about with 1:15 remaining in the second when Dallas Stars prospect Matej Stransky scored his second of the game to give his team a 2-0 lead. After serving a holding penalty, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound right wing skated out of the box, picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone and scored on a breakaway.
Stransky's chance was made possible when defenseman Craig blocked a Halifax shot. The puck skittered to center ice, where Stransky picked it up and went backhand-to-forehand and roofed a shot over the glove of Fucale.
The Blades took a 1-0 lead in the first when Stransky scored his first goal of the playoffs off a loose puck in the slot. New York Rangers prospect Shane McColgan earned the primary assist on the goal at 12:11.
Saskatoon coach Lorne Molleken was determined to have his team slow down the much quicker Halifax forwards by bottling up the neutral zone, keeping shot attempts from the outside, and playing physical whenever possible. Siemens logged plenty of minutes for Saskatoon, jumping on the ice whenever blue-chip draft prospects MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin were out. Siemens, a 2011 first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche, boasted a plus-31 rating during the regular season.
Prior to the game, Molleken promised that his team would seek to make life as difficult as possible for Halifax.
"We need to be hard on [MacKinnon and Drouin] to make sure we're not giving them room to get going," Molleken told reporters. "They are tremendous players, there’s no question. Being the aggressor is going to be important."
The Mooseheads went 0-for-3 with two shots on the power play in the opening period. MacKinnon had a golden opportunity to even the score with 28 seconds remaining and his team on the man-advantage when his attempt from the left side of the goal line rang off the far-side post past Makarov, who made 11 saves in the first.
MacKinnon, who was coming off a three-goal, four-point game Saturday in the defeat of Portland, finished with a minus-1 rating Sunday.