The Saskatoon Blades entered this season believing they were capable of winning the Memorial Cup on home ice.
Despite a first-round exit from the Western Hockey League playoffs, the Blades still have a chance to prove they belong in the 2013 Canadian Hockey League championship.
The host Blades will have been idle for 51 days when they open the tournament Friday against the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights.
Saskatoon experienced an up-and-down season — including a rocky start, an 18-game winning streak and a television crew filming their every move — before a stunning sweep at the hands of the Medicine Hat Tigers.
Blades head coach and general manager Lorne Molleken says the pressure of hosting major junior hockey's premier tournament hung over his players all season.
"It was a different year simply because of the highs and the lows," said Molleken, whose club finished the regular season 44-22-6. "Every time we lost a game it almost seemed like people around us thought it was the end of the world.
"The talk at the start of the year, everything was about the Memorial Cup and maybe our focus wasn't where it should have been."
As hosts of the tournament, the Blades were followed by a television crew. Molleken says it was an adjustment at first, but adds the presence of the cameras had nothing to do with the team's short run in the playoffs.
"In the early going our players just didn't know how to react because there was a camera in the locker-room at all times," he said in a recent phone interview. "But I think when I look back at it and as the season went on, they became a part of our team and they did a tremendous job with it.
"I think for the players, it was a real learning experience for them and a positive experience for them."
Blades captain Brenden Walker joined Saskatoon prior to the season after three campaigns with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He says having the cameras around was a unique situation.
"It was pretty cool for us and a pretty cool experience to be involved in, and a great memory of this year that we can show in the future," Walker said before adding, "with the cameras they're looking for ups and downs and that kind of stuff ... it was difficult sometimes for sure."
The Blades, who automatically earned a bye into the Memorial Cup as the host team, have been swept out of the playoffs in the last three seasons. Despite this year's stumble, Molleken still believes his team has what it takes to win the Memorial Cup on home ice.
"We felt we built a team here that could win a championship but for whatever reason we didn't compete as hard as we needed to against a team that was playing extremely well in Medicine Hat," he said. "They did a great job against us."
Added Walker: "Maybe we thought it was going to be easy or we weren't prepared for it but now we've got to put that behind us and really not worry about that and instead worry about our readiness for the Memorial Cup."
The Blades are led offensively by Josh Nichols (47 goals, 38 assists) and Matej Stransky (40 goals, 45 assists). Walker was next on the scoring list with 33 goals and 43 assists, while Russian world junior goalie Andrey Makarov will be counted on at the other end after posting a 2.62 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage.
Following a two-week break after their March 27 elimination, Molleken put the Blades through more than a month of hard training. He says they're in the best shape they've been all the season.
Walker says the players can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
"It's been a long journey here for the last little bit but we're just chipping at it and it's going to be a great thing when the puck drops," Walker said. "(Losing in the first round) was a tough way to go but that's behind us and we're just moving forward and we've got a bigger goal ahead of us. We've just to make sure we're ready to go."
The Blades are drawing inspiration from last season's hosts, the Shawinigan Cataracts. The club crashed out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs but managed to win the Memorial Cup after a long layoff.
Saskatoon will be looking to capture its first CHL title, but the club also knows that there will be detractors.
"We are healthy and we're anxious to get the puck dropped on the 17th and we know we're going to be playing against three league champions that have proven they're worthy of that," said Molleken, whose team rolls four lines and six defencemen. "We're going to have to take our game to a new level and our players have worked extremely hard at that."
The Blades know all they can do is control what happens on the ice going forward.
"You never want to think that you get a free bye into the Memorial Cup and instead just come right through the front door," Walker said. "Now this is our last kick at the cat."
The Portland Winterhawks and the Halifax Mooseheads round out the field for the MasterCard Memorial Cup, which runs through May 26.