Is it Saturday yet?
Defenseman Seth Jones, of the Western Hockey League champion Portland Winterhawks, shall confront the Quebec League champion Halifax Mooseheads’ dynamic duo of Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.
This will be the second time this troika has shared a sheet of ice in a high-profile, competitive amateur event during their draft year. Jones and his fellow Americans previously faced Team Canada, complete with Drouin and MacKinnon, twice at the 2013 World Junior Championships.
None of the three made a substantive impact in those games, but they will doubtlessly be leaned on more heavily when they meet for Canadian Hockey League bragging rights.
Besides the presumptive high-end picks, Jones will accompany two other promising Portland players in Nicolas Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand. The two forwards are ranked among the top 50 North American skaters and placed among the Western League’s top 10 postseason point-getters, Petan surpassing all playmakers with 19 assists.
In their round-robin opener on Saturday, and possibly again in the playoff round, they will be tasked with countering the regal force of MacKinnon and Drouin. But they will also be tested by the NHL draft pool’s highest-ranking North American netminder, Zach Fucale.
By the same token, this will be Fucale’s rigorous final exam after what can be deemed a relatively breezy QMJHL playoff run. The Halifax goalie stamped a .918 save percentage and 2.02 goals-against average amidst an incredible 16-1 romp through the four rounds, although he generally blinked with more frequency as the tournament wore on and more biscuits came his way.
Fucale never faced more than 20 shots in any of four first-round bouts with the Saint John Sea Dogs, and confined them to a single goal each night. He allowed three goals for the first time in the playoffs on the same night of his first workload of 21 opposing shots or more when the Mooseheads eliminated Gatineau from the second round.
The encouraging news: Fucale’s most efficient night with a quantitative workload was the President’s Cup clincher this past Friday, when he repelled 34 out of 35 stabs by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
He will need to stave off a week’s worth of rust and fill up on academic and mental preparation before he confronts the Winterhawks, who in addition to explosive forwards have four defensemen who combined for 15 goals in the WHL playoffs. That includes five off the blade of Jones, who placed third among blueliners with 15 points in 21 postseason tilts.
Both teams could later face another party ripe with impending draftees bidding for national glory and a stamp on their big-game aptitude. The Ontario League’s Memorial Cup representative will be decided Monday night when the defending league champion and 2012 Memorial Cup finalist London Knights host the Barrie Colts.
London bears three of Central Scouting’s top 50 North American skaters in Max Domi, Bo Horvat and Nikita Zadorov. Domi and Horvat are both holdovers from last season, but have been playing a more visible role this spring and can elevate their draft stock by giving the Knights another passport to the Memorial Cup.
Of course, the alternative scenario would have the Colts joining in the pool with Halifax, Portland and the host Saskatoon Blades. In that event, the undrafted prodigies will have another sound measuring pole anchored by Mark Scheifele, the prolific pivot who was selected seventh overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2011.
Scheifele would not be unfamiliar to any of the presumptive top three choices of 2013. He opposed Jones and was allied with Drouin and MacKinnon at the WJC.
Regardless, the most recognizable names among soon-to-be NHL draftees of each position have already secured their right to convene in Saskatoon. That alone is sufficient to start envisioning a peerlessly historic Memorial Cup tournament.