McKenzie Cup Preview

Starting on Thursday evening, the Fort St. John Flyers will battle the Bentley Generals, in the McKenzie Cup.

This year’s series will take place at the Red Deer Arena, and will feature a best-of-five series, to be played on consecutive nights.  It’ll be a feast of hockey, and here’s what you need to know before you show up.

What it means:

There are only six spots available at the Allan Cup, which is the national Senior hockey championship (essentially the Canadian Amateur championships). Each spring, the BC representative takes on the Alberta representative in the McKenzie Cup, which determines the Pacific representative at the Allan Cup, which this year will be played in Steinback, Manitoba.


Which teams are involved:

The Bentley Generals take on the Fort St. John Flyers, for the third straight year. The Generals have won the previous two meetings, and made it all the way to the Allan Cup final last year, where they lost to the host Brantford Blast.   The Generals are the champions of Alberta’s Chinook Hockey League, while the Flyers are the champs of the North Peace Hockey League.


Players to watch:

Fort St. John:

Goaltending – 3-time Allan Cup winner Chad Vizzutti is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. But Vizzutti is a “big-game” goaltender, who seems to rise to the occasion and play his best hockey when the stakes are high. Along with Troy Hunt, Vizzutti gives the Flyers a dynamic one-two punch in goal, both of which can carry the load, and both of which are expected to see action in the series.

Scoring – Ryan Carter was the best player for the Flyers in the playoffs last season, and has continued to contribute whenever he has put on a Blue and White jersey this year. Carter is a goal-scorer, who will be relied upon as a ‘game-changer’ in the series. The Flyers are also hoping Fort St. John native Rod Stevens will take some of the pressure off Carter. Stevens certainly has been a ‘game-changer’ in his career, but hasn’t played hockey at a high level since his retirement from the French league last season.

Defence – The status of star defenceman Kip Noble is still up in the air, which is a major question mark for the Flyers. In the lineup, he provides a complete package of skating, passing, toughness, and one of the best shots in the country. Out of the lineup, he leaves the Flyers with just six defencemen, and no real standout on which to depend.

Bentley:

Goaltending – At this point, Scott Galenza is the number one goalie for the Generals, after winning all four of his starts in the provincial finals against Stony Plain. But, the Flyers chased Galenza in their game Two win in last year’s McKenzie Cup, before former Flyer Rod Branch suited up as a General, shutting the door for the rest of the series. This year, Branch is out of the picture, and unless the Generals can pick up a goaltender from elsewhere in Alberta, Galenza will share the duties with Mike Gilhooly and Cam Ondrik.

Scoring – When healthy, Kevin Smyth plays left-wing on the top line, and can be terrifying with the puck. Smyth missed game six of the Alberta finals with an upper-body injury, but returned to score two points, including the game-winning goal, in game seven. His NHL career was cut short by injury, which has been the Achilles heel of the veteran’s career. Joining Kevin Smyth on the attack, is leading scorer Curtis Austring, Diarmud Kelly, Sean Robertson, and Jared Smyth, who all boast at least WHL-level experience.

Defence – Donald Morrison and Joe Vandermeer were 2-way studs in last year’s McKenzie Cup, quietly controlling the game, and chipping in offensively as well. Joining those two stalwarts is Dion Darling, giving the Gens three D-men with AHL experience.

But then again…

But of course, numbers and stats do not a series make. 

The Flyers are hungry to avenge their previous two losses, and reach the national competition for the first time in club history.  Fort St. John will play host to next year’s Allan Cup, and so the Flyers are anxious to prove to the hockey world that they are deserving of their spot amongst the country’s best amateur teams. 

The Generals, on the other hand, are twice defending McKenzie Cup champs, but may dress as few as 7 players who actually played in the McKenzie Cup last year (Galenza, Morrison, Vandermeer, Kent Beagle, Harstaad, Jared Smyth).  Since wrapping up the regular season with a 23-1 record, the Generals have played four tough playoff rounds, getting pushed the distance in both the Chinook League playoffs and the Alberta playdowns.  But like the Flyers, the Generals have spent the season trying to elevate their game, in anticipation of the rigors of April. “Like I tell the guys every night” says Coach Brian Sutter, “if you prepare for the toughest possible battle, then you’ll be ready for any challenge that confronts you.”

But while they may not be a group of long-time senior hockey players, the Generals come loaded with top-end talent, and high-end experience.  Bentley’s lineup includes a dozen players who played in the WHL, a handful of varsity athletes, and even players with AHL and NHL games under their belts.  They play a tight, disciplined style of hockey, as you might expect out of a Brian Sutter team.   Bentley has a lot of size, and plays a physical game matched only by Fort St. John.   The Generals also have a lengthy roster, which coach Sutter isn’t afraid to use. “We’ve used 32 guys, and we’ve played four playoff series already,” he says, adding “We play as a group, and we know we need everybody.”

The Generals have the guns to make teams pay for defensive miscues, as well as a powerplay that has served them well all season (6 of their 19 goals against Stony Plain were scored on the man-advantage, including Kevin Smyth’s game 7 winner).  Even short-handed, PK specialists Chris Martini and Kent Beagle provide a threat that can’t be ignored.

Likewise, the powerplay of the Flyers could be huge. The likes of Ryan Carter, Rod Stevens, Tyler Brough, Adam Loncan, Dustin Kersey, and Todd Alexander can all put the puck in the net given half a chance, and in a series as physical as this one ought to be, there will certainly be powerplays to work with.

But, while the Flyers can score with the best of teams (240 goals in a 26 game regular season), it’s their ability to keep them out that will decide this series. And that’s a hard factor to determine. Behind an arguably outmatched defensive roster, the Flyers have two stellar goalies, who are capable of stealing games and maintaining balance.

Even Brian Sutter knows goaltending is huge. Sutter points to Cody Rudkowsky as a big part of Stony Plain’s success this season, likening it to Rod Branch’s performance for the Flyers in the 2007 McKenzie Cup. “[The Flyers’] goaltending was really good, and they competed really hard,” which he says made it a close series, which he fully expects again.

And certainly the Flyers defensive depth will be tested.  Even if Kip Noble is 100% healthy, the Flyers have less skill and poise on the blue-line than do their opponents.  Noble’s absence will put the pressure on rookie Brett Loney, who will then be expected to play on the top pairing. Brett has silky stickhandling skills, and drew rave reviews for his performance in an exhibition series against Stony Plain in November.  Loney may be playing against his equals or betters for the first time in his life – an opportunity that can break or define any young athlete.  If Noble is in the lineup, Brett Loney will likely play on the second pairing alongside his big brother Tyler Loney – a sizeable tandem that can hit, fight, and make breakaway passes with equal grace.  The Flyers defensive corps, particularly Arlo Hadland and Mike Shipton, exceeded all expectations in the playoff run last year, but will need to be even better to survive the McKenzie Cup.   Bryan Lewis will play on the top pairing, and can be counted on for gritty, defensive zone responsibility, while Luke Middleton rounds out a blue-line as a major wild-card. Middleton was a dominant player in the November Stony Plain series, and can skate as well as anyone on the ice.  His risky and at-times casual game could cause problems, or could be a huge offensive spark from the back-end.

As for the coaching matchup, it could also be a battle to watch.  Behind the Bentley bench is Brian Sutter, who boasts more than 1000 games as an NHL head coach, and won the 1990-91 Jack Adams Award, as the NHL’s Coach of the Year.  Sutter ran the bench for Bentley two years ago, but was busy coaching the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels last season.  Behind the Fort St. John bench is second-year coach Adam Brash, who is intent on keeping up with his counterpart.  And this is one series in which coaching may well be a factor.  The teams are well-matched, know each other well, and play similar styles of dump-and-chase, crash-and-bang hockey. It’s all a challenge that Adam Brash is looking forward to: [asset|aid=1165|format=mp3player|formatter=asset_bonus|title=023e074fea58d8dd368f25c2b0d29d7b-Brashvs.Sutter_1_Pub.mp3]

Naturally, the fact that this series is entirely in Red Deer will be a factor. But, for the Flyers, it’s not a typical road trip.   Unlike in the NPHL regular season, the Flyers won’t have to deal with long bus trips before games, late nights, and work.  The Flyers will be staying at a hotel, resting on game days, and taking their families with them, for added support.  Goaltender Troy Hunt says that’s a big difference as compared to regular road trips. “When you hit the city limits, you’re there for one reason” Hunt says, “You’re there to win three hockey games, so it’s a whole different ball-game.” 

Coach Brash is also downplaying the significance of playing the series away from the North Peace Arena.   “The home ice advantage stuff is going to be strictly based on fans, and line changing” says Brash, adding “We play well on the road, we like playing on the road, we concentrate better on the road, and there’s less distractions, so I think we have the advantage there.”

Are the Flyers ready? According to their coach, they are: “I think we’ve been ready all year long” says Brash.

The McKenzie Cup starts on Thursday, and will be broadcast live on Moose FM, and online at energeticcity.ca. Games start at 7:30 MST each night, with a 45 minute M&M Meats Pre-game Show starting at 5:45 PST.

Jon Zacks – Moose FM & Energeticcity.ca staff