LONDON, Ont. - Zach Mitchell is moving closer to hockey's promised land after recently signing a contract with the NHL's Minnesota Wild.
But before he heads to the pro ranks, the Guelph Storm right-winger can claim major junior hockey's biggest prize.
The Storm will play in Sunday's championship game at the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Guelph secured the berth with a 6-3 win over the Val-d'Or Foreurs on Monday.
For Mitchell and fellow overage players Steve Trojanovic and Ryan Horvat, it is the chance to write a storybook ending to their junior careers.
"Playing for the Memorial Cup on Sunday, it's a great way to end my career," the 21-year-old from Caledon, Ont., said. "It's going to be a little emotional, but I'm just going to try and go out there and play hard."
The Storm are a win away from the franchise's first Memorial Cup in its 23-year history. This is their fifth appearance in the Canadian Hockey League's championship tournament. The Guelph Platers won a Cup in 1986 before relocating to Owen Sound.
With 11 goals in two wins, the explosive Storm conclude the preliminary-round Wednesday against the desperate London Knights. The host Knights are winless and need a victory to avoid elimination and get to a tiebreaker game.
The challenge for Guelph is to not start thinking too much about the final before Sunday.
"It's definitely hard, but one thing about trying to become a professional is to prepare the same way for every game," Mitchell said. "This game against London, even though we're already in the final, it still means a lot to us."
The Foreurs and Edmonton Oil Kings were both 1-1 and meet Tuesday night. The victors advance to Friday's semifinal. The loser will either join them for a rematch or face the Knights in a tiebreaker.
"It's going to be an important game for us tomorrow to be sure we're not playing Thursday," Foreurs head coach Mario Durocher said. "Tomorrow we play a bigger team, but they're not as fast as Guelph."
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions may be without top defenceman Guillaume Gelinas. Guelph's Chadd Bauman was tossed in the third period for knee-on-knee contact with Gelinas. Val-d'Or's assistant captain was helped from the ice in obvious pain.
"Hopefully he's going to be able to play tomorrow," Durocher said. "If not, someone has to take his place."
The Storm were the highest scoring major junior team in Canada this season with 340 goals. They continue to showcase the speed that stretches defence as well as their wealth of scoring talent.
Kerby Rychel, Mitchell, Jason Dickinson, Robby Fabbri, Pius Suter, and Tyler Bertuzzi scored Monday. Scott Kosmachuk had three assists. Mitchell, Brock McGinn and captain Matt Finn each had two assists.
The line of Dickinson, McGinn and Kosmachuk also helped hold QMJHL leading scorer Anthony Mantha without a goal. Mantha had 81 goals in 81 games prior to facing the Storm.
The Storm rattled off four unanswered goals, including three within the first six minutes, before the Foreurs could counter in the second.
Foreurs goaltender Antoine Bibeau stopped all 51 shots he faced in Val-d'Or's 1-0 win over the Knights to open the tournament. But after six goals on 36 shots, he was replaced after two periods by Keven Bouchard, who stopped the 13 shots he faced.
The Foreurs had just three days between winning Game 7 of their QMJHL final in Baie-Comeau, Que., and their first game in London.
But even with two days of rest after their opener, Val-d'Or wasn't as tenacious on the puck as the Storm and the defence around their own net was sloppy.
"I think we got a little stunned by their speed and the quality of their players," Val-d'Or defenceman Randy Gazzola said. "They came at us hard. They were ready to play and we weren't ready to play right from the start.
"Once things settled down, I thought we played a lot better. We left Bibeau out to dry regardless. He's been our MVP since the beginning of playoffs and we took him for granted."
Timotej Sille replied with a goal and an assist for Val-d'Or. Anthony Beauregard and Randy Gazzola also scored for the Foreurs. Storm goalie Justin Nichols made 30 saves for the win.
The team that gains the bye has the advantage of extra rest and preparation, but it's less an advantage than it once was.
Since a day off between the semifinal and final was incorporated into the tournament format in 2007, the team with the bye hoisted the trophy four of seven years.
The Memorial Cup went to a four-team tournament with the addition of a host club in 1983. When the semifinal and final were played on back-to-back days, the team with the bye won the Cup 17-of-24 years.