The Mastercard Memorial Cup kicked off tonight with an entertaining and spirited match-up between the WHL champion Kelowna Rockets and host Quebec Remparts that saw the Remparts hold on to a third period despite a late scramble from Kelowna to win the opening game of the tournament by a 4-3 score.
The game began with a flurry of action that actually serves as a microcosm of the junior hockey experience; great speed, high skill, several chances the result of mistakes, and overenthusiastic physical leading to a penalty (an early roughing call on Jerome Verrier.
Quebec would carry the play to begin the game, and after killing off the Verrier penalty they would score the first goal of the game. Vladimir Tkachev would draw a tripping call taking advantage of some soft defensive coverage from the Rockets, before finding Nikolas Broulliard, whose wrist shot beat Kelowna goalie Jackson Whistle.
The other early event in the game that was of significant importance was that Remparts forward (and Tampa Bay draft pick) Adam Erne appeared to injure himself on the first shift of the game on a collision with Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton). Erne missed the remainder of the period but would return to start the second, to the relief of Remparts fans.
Kelowna would get out of the first down one, being outshot 12-9, but not before surrendering a couple of dangerous chances to Anthony Duclair (Arizona) who couldn't find the handle on what was essentially an empty net, and then a breakway at the very end of the period.
Tempers began to flare early in the second with a bizarre faceoff exchange leading to 2 minute unsportsmanlike penalties for Quebec's Massimo Carozza, and Kelowna's Chance Braid and Madison Bowey (Washington) (giving Quebec a powerplay). I'm sure Quebec was okay with that trade-off.
Duclair and Tkachev would continue to be dangerous and would generate a goal later in the second, after a dazzling play by Tkachev to cycle the puck in the corner before dishing back to Matt Murphy, whose point shot would beat Whistle in part to Duclair's attacking the net and creating a screen, giving them a 2-0 lead.
The Rockets would respond prior to the end of the second period. While shorthanded, an icing puck would dribble into the corner, forcing Zach Fucale (Montreal) to remain in the net. Cole Linaker would retrieve the puck for Kelowna and thread a pass in front to Nick Merkley (2015 draft eligible), who snapped a wrister up over Fucale. 2-1, and the Rockets are back in the game.
Early in the third Duclair would redeem his mistake on the Merkley goal. With Verrier back in the box, the Rockets would begin to generate good chances on a powerplay, leading to a great Fucale pad save. A turnover would lead to another Duclair breakaway (Merkley ironically trying valiantly to catch him), that Whistle would make a stellar pokecheck on to deny Duclair. Unfortunately, the next man to the puck was Quebec defender Ryan Graves who jumped into the play, and scored with Whistle at his mercy.
Quebec captain Kurt Etchegarry would almost score immediately after, leading to more sustained pressure that had Whistle sliding all around in front of his net. Kelowna recovered just long enough to clear the zone and give up a chance to Broulliard that forced Rodney Southam to take a cross-checking penalty.
The Remparts would generate multiple chances on the ensuing powerplay, as Kelowna appeared to simply be hanging on early in the third. Kelowna came into this game having had the longest lay-off prior to the start of the tournament, after sweeping Brandon in the WHL Finals and you have to wonder if that plus the long-flight to Quebec City are having an impact on their performance.
Kelowna would find a lifeline with seven minutes remaining on a powerplay. A Josh Morissey (Winnipeg) one-timer was deflected by Gage Quinney (classic WHL name) past Fucale to cut the lead to 3-2. Kelowna would keep up the pressure and nearly equalized when Draisaitl tried to squeak the puck past Fucale while moving laterally, the referees' whistle saving Fucale before he slid back behind the goal line.
As the third period wound down, the Rockets would continue to press for the equalizer, nearly being put away after Adam Erne got sprung for a breakaway chance with 3 minutes remaining. Erne would make up for the breakaway miss by scoring on an empty net from centre to seal the game.
Or... so it seemed. With less than a minute remaining the Rockets would receive a 5-on-3 powerplay (6-on-3 with Whistle on the bench) and Leon Draisaitl would score with 37 seconds left to cut the lead back to 4-3, and then on the 6-on-4 they would nearly strike again. However, Quebec would hang on to close out the game.
Quebec will be in action next on Sunday when they take on the OHL champion Oshawa Generals, while Kelowna is off until Monday with their second game against a Quebec team, QMJHL champion Rimouski Oceanic. Tomorrow afternoon the Generals and Oceanic meet to begin their tournament.