SASKATOON, Saskatchewan — The mostly neutral crowd at the Memorial Cup got their money’s worth and then some Saturday night.
The Portland Winterhawks, however, marked their return to major junior hockey’s biggest stage with a night they’d like to forget, dropping a 7-4 decision to the Halifax Mooseheads in front of 8,771 at the Credit Union Centre.
The game was billed in the hockey press as a battle of top NHL draft prospects, with Portland’s No. 1-ranked Seth Jones facing off against the Mooseheads’ Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon.
All three played well, but MacKinnon made the night’s biggest statement, scoring three times in a five-goal second-period avalanche that buried the Hawks.
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“It’s obviously not the start we wanted,” said Portland acting head coach Travis Green. “I thought we played really well for 25 to 27 minutes, but then the game got away from us for about 10 minutes there.”
It was an especially rough night for Hawks goalie Mac Carruth, who allowed seven goals on 35 shots. The four-year WHL veteran posted a 1.63 goals-against average in the playoffs, but never looked comfortable Saturday as shots he normally stops kept finding a way to trickle past him.
When asked if he ever considered lifting Carruth for backup Brendan Burke, Green simply said, “No.”
While Carruth was far from his best, credit has to go to the high-flying Mooseheads, who dominated the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and went 16-1 in the playoffs.
“They’re a good hockey club,” said Portland captain Troy Rutkowski, who scored twice. “There’s a reason they’re ranked No. 1 in (major junior). We got away from our game the last 15 minutes of the second period and it cost us.”
The Hawks controlled play in the first period, outshooting the Mooseheads 16-7. But Jones’ goal with 3:19 left in the period salvaged just a 1-1 tie through 20 minutes.
Portland burst out of the gate in the second period with two strikes to seize momentum. Rutkowski gave the Hawks the lead 39 seconds in, followed by a spectacular Ty Rattie goal 1:32 later to make it 3-1.
It looked like business as usual for the Hawks, but the Mooseheads soon showed why they’ve now won 75 of 86 games this season.
Drouin started the outburst with a rebound goal 65 seconds after Rattie’s tally. MacKinnon tied it with 15:24 left in the period. Luca Cimapini gave the Mooseheads the lead for good midway through the period, then MacKinnon added a power-play goal and a short-handed bank shot from behind Carruth to make it 6-3 through 40 minutes.
“They can score at the flip of a switch, and that’s what they did,” Rattie said.
Both Green and Rutkowski lamented “lucky bounces” that contributed to the Halifax onslaught, rather than placing any blame on Carruth, who wasn’t available for interviews. Rattie was quick to cite several reasons beyond goaltending for the Hawks’ breakdown.
“It’s simple mistakes, a couple giveaways and loose guys that needed to be picked up, plus penalties we shouldn’t have taken,” Rattie said. “It’s all things that can be fixed, and we’ll be better Monday.”
Rutkowski’s second of the game with 18:51 left in regulation gave the Hawks a sliver of hope, but Halifax’s Stephen MacAulay squashed any hopes of a comeback with a deflected shot that rolled slowly past Carruth, who seemed oblivious to the puck’s whereabouts.
Despite the disappointing debut, the Hawks are far from out of the tournament. With two round-robin games left, there’s ample opportunity to rally and reach the semifinal. A win against the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights on Monday would put Portland back in a favorable position.
Notes: Singer Alexis Normand forgot the words to the pregame rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and the crowd in the arena had to help her finish the song. Video of the incident has already been posted on several prominent sports websites. ... The last time the Winterhawks gave up seven goals was April 16, 2012, against Kamloops in Game 6 of a second-round playoff series...MacKinnon was sporting a fur coat during postgame media interviews. The Mooseheads give the coat to the player deemed the “hardest working” after each game. ... Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme on his team’s slow start: “We were not skating as well as were able to and not applying pressure. We were getting caught puck watching, giving them a lot of space. Afteir their third goal, we went back to our strengths and were much better.”