SAINT JOHN, N.B. — Just over a month ago, it would have been difficult for the Saint John Sea Dogs to see themselves in the 2022 Memorial Cup final.
As hosts of the tournament, the Sea Dogs were eliminated in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs and looking at nearly a 40-day layoff before opening the four-team tournament at Harbour Station arena.
Yet, a coaching change and three games later, the Sea Dogs have an opportunity to win its second Memorial Cup when they host the OHL champion Hamilton Bulldogs in the final (6 p.m. ET, TSN) Wednesday.
“One month ago, who knows what people were saying about us,” said Sea Dogs head coach Gardiner MacDougall. “People weren’t sure if we would be a good representative of the tournament and we would play only three games and wouldn’t be able to compete. So, it’s nice to still be here.”
The Sea Dogs earned a berth into the final by finishing first in the four-team round-robin. They defeated the Bulldogs in their opener, lost to the Edmonton Oil Kings in overtime and then defeated the QMJHL champion Shawinigan Cataractes, battling back from a three-goal, first period deficit.
The Sea Dogs will have the hometown crowd behind them against the Bulldogs, who defeated the Cataractes 4-3 in overtime in the semifinal Monday.
“When we lost in the first round, we for sure thought we weren’t going to be able to get here,” said Sea Dogs forward William Dufour, who scored four goals against the Cataractes in their 5-3 come-from-behind win. “Losing in the first round, it was probably the worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. For a team that is supposed to go to the Memorial Cup and have a chance to win everything, to get eliminated in the first round, that was shocking for us.
“But now, we’re in the final and we’ll see what happens (Wednesday).”
The Sea Dogs were built to compete in the first Memorial Cup tournament since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 and 2021 events. Saint John won 47 games this season and finished third in the QMJHL Eastern Conference standings.
Due to delays in the season because of the pandemic, however, the first three rounds of the QMJHL playoffs were reduced to best-of-five series and it bit the Sea Dogs. They were upset by the Rimouski Oceanic, who finished 23 points lower in the standings, losing Game 5 in overtime. Had the series gone the normal seven games, the Sea Dogs would have had a better chance of pulling it out.
“You have to believe it first to make it happen,” said Sea Dogs centre Josh Lawrence. “The past month has been a long one and it has prepared us for this moment, and we’re excited that the hard work has brought us here.”
After being eliminated, the Sea Dogs turned to MacDougall for help. The legendary coach at the University of New Brunswick has won seven national championships in 22 years at the helm of the men’s hockey program. The Sea Dogs also asked former NHL heavyweight Rocky Thompson for assistance. Thompson went through a similar situation in the OHL as head coach of the Windsor Spitfires in 2017.
Windsor was eliminated in the first round of the OHL playoffs and then went on to win the Memorial Cup after a month layoff.
“This last month was as busy as I’ve been as a coach in the last 39 years,” MacDougall said. “We did a lot of stuff on the ice, we did a lot of stuff off the ice. I had an hour and 10-minute drive in the morning and an hour and 10-minute drive in the afternoon. It was a busy month but it paid some dividends.”
It won’t be easy for the Sea Dogs to claim its first Memorial Cup championship since 2011. Having beaten the Bulldogs in the opening game of the tournament, they are going to need to do it again nine days later.
Hamilton lost just three games in the entire OHL playoffs this season, and they all come in a seven-game series against the Spitfires.
The Bulldogs may be someone of a beat-up group, with star defenceman Nathan Staios ailing along with a number of other players. And they’ll be a different team in the final than they were in the opening game of the tournament where they were down 4-0 before mounting third-period comeback in a 5-3 loss.
“We played Saint John once and they certainly didn’t see the best version of the Hamilton Bulldogs, and I expect they will (Wednesday),” said Bulldogs head coach Jay McKee. “We’ve been through a few of those big games now, in the Windsor series and the last few games.
“We’ve got a confident group that believes in each other in the dressing room. It hasn’t been easy, in Game 4 in Windsor we scored with a couple of minutes to go to tie it up and then go to OT; we would have been down 3-1 in the series there, that was a real pressure moment as was the do-or-die against the WHL champions.”
The Bulldogs defeated the Oil Kings 3-2 in their final round-robin game to get into the semifinal. They have been led offensively by Anaheim Ducks third overall selection in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Mason McTavish.
The talented forward has suited up with six teams this season, including Canada’s world junior and Olympic teams. He has four goals and two assists in four games at the tournament.
“Mason loves being on the ice, he loves the game,” McKee said. “He’s a guy we have to pull off the ice on optional days when we want him to rest up. He always wants to do one more in the drills when he’s up next. He’s passionate for the game and loves watching, doing it, working on his craft and he’s just a great kid to have in our room.”