SHAWINIGAN, Que. -- It would be hard for people who are not from here to understand what junior hockey means to the people of Shawinigan, and just how long they have waited to see what they witnessed Sunday night.
But now, after 43 years, the people of Shawinigan can say they are the home of the MasterCard Memorial Cup champions.
Anton Zlobin's second goal of the game, at 17:51 of overtime, gave the host Shawinigan Cataractes a 2-1 win against the London Knights in the tournament final Sunday in front of a packed house of jubilant fans at Bionest Centre, who went home content that a 43-year itch finally was scratched.
"It's unbelievable," Cataractes defenseman Morgan Ellis, a Montreal Canadiens prospect, said amid the on-ice celebration following the presentation of the 94-year old trophy. "They've wanted this for 43 years and they finally got it. They deserve it. They're the most passionate fans ever, and we deserve it, too."
While Zlobin was the offensive hero for the hosts, the Cataractes never would have made it to overtime without the heroics of overage goaltender Gabriel Girard, who made a series of highlight-reel saves in the third period to keep the game tied, and then robbed London's Andreas Athanasiou just over two minutes before Zlobin got the game-winner.
"Whatever happened, whether it was a shot from far away or a big scoring chance, I knew I had to stop the puck and keep that game 1-1," the 20-year-old Girard said. "That's what I did."
The Cataractes were the 19th team ever to play in the championship game as MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts and became just the ninth to win it -- the first since Milan Lucic's Vancouver Giants in 2007.
It also was the eighth time the championship final went to overtime, the first since the Red Deer Rebels won in 2001.
And Shawinigan took about the toughest road possible to the title, becoming just the second team ever to win the championship after playing in the tie-breaker game -- joining the 2009 Windsor Spitfires. Sunday was the Cataractes' fourth game in five nights, but they didn't show it as their energy probably was at its highest in the overtime period.
"That game could have gone to two or three overtimes, I'm pretty certain these guys would have still had legs," Shawinigan coach Eric Veilleux said. "They worked so hard, but mostly they believed in them being able to accomplish something big today. That's how they conducted themselves and how they played the whole tournament. Hat's off to them, they deserve it."
Zlobin, a Russian who went undrafted last year, completed the tournament with five goals and four assists -- though obviously none were bigger than his last one.
With the crowd still buzzing over Girard's game-saving stop at the other end, the Cataractes' top line of Blue Jackets prospect Michael Chaput, Canadiens prospect Michael Bournival and Zlobin -- No. 137 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft -- worked the puck into the London end. From behind the net, Bournival found Zlobin for a one-timer that beat Knights goalie Michael Houser cleanly, and bedlam ensued as the fans erupted.
"It's so amazing, 5,000 people just supporting me," Zlobin said. "I can't believe it. It's the most important goal of my life."
The Knights fell short in their bid to win just their second championship, and the principal player in the franchise's first win in 2005 -- Anaheim Ducks forward Corey Perry -- was in the building to witness the loss.
London perfectly played its style of hockey, severely limiting Shawinigan's scoring chances by clogging the neutral zone and keeping everything to the outside in the defensive zone. But in the end, it wasn't enough.
"It was a tough loss," London coach Mark Hunter said. "The boys played hard all year. Someone has to lose and we lost."
Veilleux couldn't have been more proud of his players, who exhibited tremendous patience in sticking to the game plan in spite of the total lack of offensive opportunities given to them by the Knights.
"When you play a team like this you really have to patient," he said. "You can't expect to have tons of scoring chances or dominate. You have to wait and wait and wait, and that's what we did."
While the Cataractes were expected to benefit from an early adrenaline boost fueled by the noisy crowd, the Knights completely dominated the opening 20 minutes, outshooting Shawinigan 13-4. It took the Cataractes just over 10 minutes to get their first shot on goal and they were still stuck on one at the 18-minute mark of the period.
"Gabriel handled the pressure. He was great the whole game," Bournival said. "In the first we were a bit nervous and he kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win. The whole team worked hard and we got better as the game went on."
The Rupert twins worked the same magic they've been weaving the whole tournament to give London a 1-0 lead. Ryan fed his brother Matt with a great breakout pass, and after Matt dumped the puck in the Cataractes' end, he wound up with control of it behind the net. He found Ryan by himself in front, and the shot went high to the stick side to beat Girard at 5:42.
The momentum swung to the Cataractes in the second as they came out far more aggressive right from the opening faceoff, and it quickly paid dividends.
Off an offensive zone faceoff, New York Islanders prospect Kirill Kabanov got the puck on the sideboards and slapped a shot the net. The puck tipped off Knights defenseman Tommy Hughes, deflected off Zlobin in front and went past Houser at 3:01 of the second to tie the game 1-1.
The Knights had some pushback immediately following the goal, but Girard made a tremendous pad save on a Matt Rupert chance in the slot at 6:54, gloved a Seth Griffith one-timer at 7:38 and slid across to stop a Jared Knight one-timer at 10:47 to keep the game tied 1-1 heading into the third.
Girard put on a goaltending clinic in the third to get the game to overtime. He robbed Maple Leafs prospect Greg McKegg by going post to post at 4:53, made a great save from in close on Predators prospect Austin Watson just past the nine-minute mark and was bailed out by one of his defensemen who blocked Watson's attempt to an open side on the rebound. Girard robbed Watson again a few moments later when he got a pad on his backhander from the slot and he made a blocker save from in close on Knight with just 1:04 to play in regulation.
"I'm so proud of him," Veilleux said of Girard. "We've been together since he was 16. It was probably tough for him that people were mentioning we didn't have two great goalies. We split the games pretty much all season [with Alex Dubeau]. But he kept being positive, had a great attitude. Whatever happened to him in this tournament is more than well-deserved."
Girard was awarded the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as top goaltender in the tournament. Teammate Michael Chaput, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, won the Stafford Smythe Trophy as tournament MVP. He led the tournament in scoring with 12 points in six games.
After the game, the Canadian Hockey League announced a number of award winners:
Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy (MVP) - Michael Chaput, Shawinigan
Ed Chynoweth Trophy (top scorer) - Michael Chaput, Shawinigan
Memorial Cup All-Star Team
Goalie: Michael Houser, London
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