SASKATOON - The Halifax Mooseheads and Portland Winterhawks have been at the apex of the Canadian Hockey League all season, so it's only fitting that the powerhouse clubs will meet in the MasterCard Memorial Cup final.
The teams will play for the CHL title on Sunday in a showcase game that will feature not only the best clubs in junior hockey, but also the top prospects ahead of next month's NHL draft.
"We can't wait. We played our last game on Tuesday and if we could play it this afternoon, right now, we're ready," Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme said Saturday. "To be playing in that last game, that was what we wanted to do and that's where we wanted to be so now it's time to make the most out of it."
Portland defenceman Seth Jones and Halifax centre Nathan MacKinnon are the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Although both have the ability to be gamebreakers, Winterhawks coach Travis Green says his focus isn't on the hype surrounding the potential top picks.
"I don't look at it as a MacKinnon-Jones thing at all. It's Portland-Halifax," Green said. "They've got a lot of good players other than MacKinnon. He's obviously a really good player, Jones is a great player, but it's coming down to our team against their team and nothing more than that."
MacKinnon, who is friends with Jones off the ice, says it's too simplistic to suggest the game will come down to the two players.
"I want to play really hard against him and he's going to play really hard against," he said. "It's going to be a team thing going on out there. Both of us have deep teams and a lot of talented players so it's not going to be a Nathan versus Seth kind of thing."
The game will also include Halifax winger Jonathan Drouin, who is ranked as the No. 3 North American skater on the draft list.
"Everyone's been talking about the top three prospects, but it's Halifax against Portland," said Drouin, who was named CHL player of the year on Saturday. "The best team is going to win the Memorial Cup and it's going to be a great game."
Jones can't wait for the puck to drop.
"It should be a lot of fun. It's definitely a huge stage," said Jones, who was named as the CHL's top prospect. "I've played on a couple big stages in my time and this one's definitely one of the most exciting."
The Mooseheads, who lost just six games in the regular season and once in the playoffs as the CHL's top-ranked team before earning a bye right to the final of this tournament with a 2-1 record, are looking to become the third straight team from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to win the Memorial Cup after Saint John in 2011 and Shawinigan last year.
The Winterhawks, meanwhile, had similar success in the Western Hockey League, finishing No. 2 in the overall rankings, but had a tumultuous campaign off the ice. The team had to deal with the season-long suspension of coach and general manager Mike Johnston for transgressions that included financial perks for players and their families.
"After the sanctions we played with a chip on our shoulder. With Mike gone we definitely used that as fuel throughout the rest of the season," Portland centre Taylor Peters said. "If we win this it just shows that nothing can stop us."
Winterhawks right-winger Ty Rattie, who leads the tournament with five goals, says his team deserves to be in the final after a trying campaign.
"It's kind of surreal. Everything you went through and especially our team this year, all the ups and downs we had. It's a cool feeling," he said. "We worked real hard this year. We went through a lot this year and now we're only 60 minutes away from our ultimate goal."
The Mooseheads and Winterhawks are two highly offensive clubs that can score in bunches. Halifax beat Portland 7-4 in the round robin portion of the tournament, but neither side is putting much emphasis on that result.
"On our side, whoever we're playing, we need to be bringing our best," said Ducharme, who was named CHL coach of the year at the awards ceremony. "We need to be strong physically for 60 minutes, but also mentally we need to be sharp and we need to be keeping those highs and lows at the same level, or almost, and not fluctuate too much."
Added Green: "I don't think it's about redemption. It's about us trying to achieve our goal and win a hockey game."
Players on both the Mooseheads and Portland say a key will be staying calm in a game with so much on the line.
"It's been a long road to get here," said MacKinnon, who had a hat trick against the Mooseheads in their first meeting. "Right now we're keeping our emotions in check. (Sunday's) game is going to be filled with emotions and it's going to be a fun and exciting game."
Halifax is looking for its first CHL title, while Portland has two Memorial Cups to its name (1983 and 1998).
"Obviously there's butterflies all the time but that's a good sign," Ducharme said. "It brings the best out of you but at the same time you need to stay in control and really focus on things you can control and things that (help) us win and will make the difference for us.
"We can't get caught up into think about everything that's around the game but really focus on what you need to do to win."