HALIFAX — Alexey Toropchenko picked up right where he left off.
Toropchenko scored a natural hat trick in the first period as the Guelph Storm went on to beat the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies 5-2 on Saturday in the Memorial Cup opener for both teams.
The 19-year-old Toropchenko, a St. Louis Blues prospect, has been on fire after scoring seven goals in the OHL championship to beat the Ottawa 67’s in six games and advance to the national major junior hockey championship.
“I think once he started to score a little bit his confidence went through the roof and I think that’s what you’re seeing right now,” said Storm manager/coach George Burnett.
“A young man that feels good with the puck, playing at a high pace, big and heavy and hurts when he hits. Exciting to see him being rewarded. He’s a pro and I think he has a really bright future because of how hard he’s worked off the ice.”
Toropchenko, who is still learning English, added: “Always play hard, especially me. I try to do best every shift.”
MacKenzie Entwistle and Nick Suzuki also scored for the Ontario Hockey League champion Storm while Sean Durzi chipped in with three assists. Anthony Popovich made 22 saves for the win.
Vincent Marleau and Jakub Lauko found the back of the net for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Huskies, who entered the four-team tournament as the No. 1 ranked club in the Canadian Hockey League.
Samuel Harvey stopped 24-of-29 shots in defeat.
“I really liked the six first minutes of the game but after their first goal we had a tough time to reset,” said Huskies coach Mario Pouliot, who won the Memorial Cup last season with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
“The way we managed the puck cost us the game, simple as that.”
Burnett made five major trades between Jan. 4 and the Jan. 10 OHL trade deadline, helping bring Guelph to its sixth Memorial Cup appearance. The Storm went 22-5-3 down the stretch, yet they were still left off the CHL top-10 rankings.
“I wouldn’t put much thought into that,” said a confident Burnett.
Marleau opened the scoring less than three minutes in, taking the puck on a solo rush and beating Popovich glove side from the top of the face-off circle with a stoppable shot.
After Marleau’s goal the rest of the period belonged to Toropchenko.
Harvey made a fine glove save on Suzuki to keep it a one-goal game, but couldn’t stop Toropchenko after a turnover led to him being alone in front to snap the puck past the Huskies netminder at the 11-minute mark while shorthanded.
Toropchenko wasn’t done either, as he backhanded one past Harvey 2:07 later on his next shift to give Guelph a 2-1 lead.
The Russian forward then received a beautiful outlet pass from defenceman Sean Durzi and went in on a breakaway, beating Harvey five-hole for a first-period hat trick and a 3-1 Storm lead at 18:23.
“I thought we started a little nervous, turned the puck over way too much throughout the night but got some timely goals and a big performance from Torpchenko who really elevated his game tonight,” said Burnett.
Entwistle took a pass from captain Isaac Ratcliffe on a 2-on-1 and beat Harvey top shelf 3:20 into the second for a 4-1 lead on a play that started with another strong outlet pass from Durzi.
Lauko cut Rouyn-Noranda’s deficit to 4-2 with a solid individual effort at 11:16 of the second when he took a pass at Guelph’s blue line, turned on his speed and beat the defender wide before cutting the crease and sliding the puck past a sprawled Popovich.
Lauko’s goal seemed to spark the Huskies as they kept up the pressure until Suzuki finished off a 2-on-1 with Durzi at 19:12 to head into the second intermission up 5-2.
Popovich made up for the early goal he let in with two of his biggest saves in the third to preserve the victory.
Guelph continues round-robin action against the host Mooseheads on Sunday in a matchup of squads that won their tournament openers. Halifax downed the Western Hockey League champion Prince Albert Raiders 4-1 on Friday to kick off the CHL championship.
“It’ll be a hornet’s nest in here tomorrow I’m sure, big crowd lots of energy” said Burnett.