The event that junior players dream of reaching is finally upon us after months of waiting. And the first matchup of the Memorial Cup didn't disappoint.
The Hamilton Bulldogs were paired against the Regina Pats in the tournament’s first game, which meant a showdown of two Habs prospects who have gotten to know each other from camps, but had yet to play versus one another in a real game: William Bitten and Cale Fleury.
Both players showcased what they do best.
Bitten was hard on the forecheck, trying to create turnovers for the Bulldogs and capitalize on the scoring ability of linemates Arthur Kaliyev and Mackenzie Entwistle. After every shot, Bitten was speeding to the net to attempt to slam a potential rebound in. He also orchestrated a few chances from passes, exploiting the space that was given to him to challenge defenders and find his teammates.
The speedy forward also created a few occasions for himself by exploding ahead of the play in the neutral zone. It's something his teammates have been drilled to look for, as Bitten escaping from the defence to go on breakaways off of stretch passes has been a common occurrence in any Bulldogs game.
Perhaps the best chance Bitten was a part of came late in the second period when he found himself in a two-on-one with Isaac Nurse. The two players exchanged the puck, but Nurse rang it off the crossbar.
Bitten had a good game, and also saved his team with some hard backchecks, but it was not the overall dominant showing that Cale Fleury displayed.
The defenceman fumbled the puck on the Bulldogs’ first goal, but made up for it by being a solid defensive presence for the rest of the game.
Braidon Saigeon had an encounter with him in the first period that didn't end well for the Hamilton forward. Fleury, in possession of the puck in the corner of his zone, saw Saigeon approaching and displayed the full extent of his strength, knocking Saigeon on the ice. The forward had to leave for the dressing room after the hit.
Fleury kept the same pattern of physical play from this moment forward while defending zone entries. He crosschecked Nicholas Caamano as he was crossing the blue line before retrieving the puck and sending it to his forward, used his lateral mobility to just catch Robert Thomas with a hard hit as he tried to slip past him, and plastered Nurse on the boards with a few seconds left in the game.
This last demonstration that you shouldn't pick his side of the ice when attacking also led to the game-winning goal for the Pats.
Fleury didn't just separate Nurse from the puck, he regained possession from the same movement while spinning around, made the forward look foolish again by dangling him, and sent a pass up the ice that allowed his team to get the one last attacking play that they needed to take the game.
It's clear that the Habs’ 2017 third-rounder takes his shutdown role to heart with the Regina Pats. He isn't seen jumping up into the offensive zone like he used to do at the beginning of the year. His conservative play is even more established with every game being so important in the Memorial Cup.
Fleury is still finding ways to contribute to the offence from his sound defensive play. It’s quite an unexpected turnaround for a player who was touted as an almost run-and-gun offensive defenceman with the Kootenay ICE.
Regina faces Acadie-Bathurst for Game 3 of the tournament on Sunday night. Bitten’s Bulldogs will play Game 4 versus the Swift Current Broncos on Monday.
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