LONDON - Predictable? Well, you could make that argument if you were so inclined.
The 2014 Mastercard Memorial Cup final on Sunday afternoon will indeed pit the champions of Ontario, the Guelph Storm, against the Edmonton Oil Kings, champions of the Western Hockey League.
They looked like the two best teams going in, and here they are, with the hometown London Knights and the Val-d’Or Foreurs having fallen by the wayside over the past week.
But the easy narrative ends there.
Guelph has roared through the competition, winning every game handily, scoring goals at will and looking very much like the team that should lift the historic trophy when this is all over. The Storm, coached by ex-NHLer Scott Walker, are a perfect 3-0 in this tournament and now sport a spectacular 19-4 record in this brilliant post-season charge.
Edmonton’s path, meanwhile, has been rather different. The Oil Kings, looking for their first Memorial Cup since beating Bobby Orr and the Oshawa Generals in 1966, had to scratch and claw their way to Sunday’s game, barking their shins and blowing leads repeatedly along the way, but all the time looking like the team destiny and history has chosen.
Well, they both can’t win.
Either the powerhouse or the blessed boys from the west have to fall.
Which should make this an intriguing final.
Last year, it was Nathan MacKinnon and the Halifax Mooseheads who fought off a stiff challenge from Seth Jones and the Portland Winterhawks to win the Cup, and this year’s event has been different from the start.
Without the draftable likes of MacKinnon, Jones, Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi, this year’s four-team joust has relied more on players already owned by NHL teams, a different kind of star power.
London has hosted a great event, but the Knights crashed and burned in historically awful fashion, losing all three games, including an embarrassing whipping at the hands of the Storm on Wednesday. The Foreurs were the sweethearts of the tournament, with the spectacular goaltending of Leaf prospect Antoine Bibeau, who faced 50 or more shots in three of the games he played, helping to fashion a story that looked like it might end with the tiny mining town of 31,000 souls becoming a surprise Memorial Cup finalist.
They stunned Edmonton in double OT earlier in the week to gain an automatic berth in Friday’s semifinal, which turned out to be a junior clash for the ages.
Again it was the Oil Kings, and again Bibeau stood on his head, and again the WHL champs built a two-goal lead and frittered it away to find themselves in overtime. Then double OT. Then triple OT.
What became the longest Memorial Cup game ever played saw both Val-d’Or and Edmonton earn chances to win it — the Foreurs even had a powerplay in a match in which the rules were only loosely applied in extra time — but neither could.
Until Ottawa Senators draft pick Curtis Lazar did.
By deflecting a point shot past Bibeau early in the third OT, Lazar pushed the Oil Kings to Sunday’s final to continue a run seemingly blessed from above.
Last June, Latvian winger Kristians Pelss, who played on the 2012 Oil Kings that went to the Memorial Cup but didn’t fare well, was found dead in a river in Riga.
He was a beloved teammate, and this season, he has become the emotional epicentre of this team. Each player wears decals with No. 26 and a tiny Latvian flag inside their helmets, and when the Oil Kings made history by becoming the first WHL team to win that league’s final in Game 7 on the road, they paraded their lost teammate’s jersey around the ice.
Led by winger Mitch Moroz, who used to drive Pelss and Slovak teammate Martin Gernat to practice and fight to get country music on the radio while they insisted on Euro techno babble, the Oil Kings have never let an important moment go by this season without dedicating it to Pelss.
Now they have won last game to win for him.
Guelph’s story isn’t anything like Edmonton’s. They were a very good team that got a lot better in December when Warren Rychel, GM of the Windsor Spitfires, agreed to trade his boy, Kerby, to the Storm along with L.A. Kings blueline prospect Nick Ebert for a player and eight draft picks.
With Rychel and Ebert, the Storm have tremendous depth that no team in the OHL could match, averaging five goals scored per game with a long list of drafted players who will likely be playing their final junior game on Sunday.
They don’t have all those emotional and historic touchstones the Oil Kings do. Still, all indicators point to a Storm victory.
But the Oil Kings were supposed to lose in Game 7 in Portland to an offensive juggernaut, and didn’t.
So we’ll see, and we’ll see how much Friday’s triple OT thriller took out of Derek Laxdal’s team. Guelph has been off since Wednesday, and other than being without suspended fourth-line winger Chadd Bauman, should be rested and at full strength.
A predictable result? Maybe, and Guelph did register a solid win when the two teams met on the second day of the tournament.
But the Oil Kings have defied predictability, riding a wave of emotion and great sadness to this point in their team history, fully 48 years since the franchise last was crowned the best in the land.
They’re unlikely to just roll over now.