LONDON, Ontario – Curtis Lazar has yet to play a game in the NHL, but he secured a spot for himself in the Hockey Hall of Fame by making Memorial Cup history Friday night.
The Ottawa Senators' 2013 first-round draft pick scored the winner for the Edmonton Oil Kings 2:42 into the third overtime of the semifinal against the Val-d'Or Foreurs, bringing to an end the longest game in the 95-year history of the Memorial Cup.
"It's the first overtime goal I've ever scored in junior hockey. I still have to digest it. They took my stick. It's going to the Hall of Fame and that's pretty cool," said the 19-year-old, who was selected 17th overall by Ottawa last June. "We have something special from this team every night and it was my turn tonight. I capitalized on the opportunity."
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In describing Lazar's goal, Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal explained that the only way he could see his team getting a puck past Foreurs goalie and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Antoine Bibeau – who made 50 or more saves in three of his four Memorial Cup games – was to get a redirection. So on Thursday, the team practiced slap passes from the point directed to forwards for angled tip-ins.
With the goal, Lazar brought to an end 183:57 of total playing time between the teams in their two games at the tournament. They played a double-overtime thriller in the round robin Tuesday before the triple-overtime classic Friday.
"Games like this, they mold your character as a person and as a player," Laxdal said. "It doesn't surprise me that Curtis got the goal. He's a big-game player. He's a big-moment player."
As he has done all season, Lazar made his contribution to the Oil Kings' victory in many different ways. The six-foot, 200-pound forward was among the top 10 scorers in the Western Hockey League this season with 41 goals. In 21 playoff games, he scored 10 goals and 22 points.
The goal against Val-d'Or gives him four points in four Memorial Cup games heading into the final on Sunday against the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League. The other time he was on a big stage like this was the IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden five months ago. In that tournament, he also averaged a point per game with four goals and three assists in seven games.
Beyond the scoring, Senator fans can also look forward to Lazar taking a lot of key faceoffs, killing penalties, landing big checks and shutting down opponents' key players, plus plenty of locker room leadership backed by personal accountability.
In fact, Lazar said one of his biggest motivators in overtime was to make amends for Val-d'Or defenseman Guillaume Gelinas' tying goal in the last minute of regulation.
"It's a big relief, especially because of that goal in the third period," Lazar said. "That was my guy going out there and I wasn't able to block it. I felt a little guilty for that."
With his conscience cleared, the native of Vernon, B.C. will reflect back on this game with fond memories for the rest of his life.
"It was pretty fun to be a part of," he said. "You don't want to make a mistake but you can't play like that. You'd dump the puck and just sit there and catch your breath. There wasn't a lot of forechecking. There were a bunch of 3-on-2s. That's overtime hockey and you embrace it."
This has been remarkable season for Lazar and his Oil King teammates. It began with the team coming together after a tragic summer in which Edmonton Oilers draft pick and former Oil King forward Kristian Pelss drowned in his native Latvia. His jersey still hangs in a locker room stall.
Mitch Moroz, also an Oiler prospect, was best friends with Pelss and rallied the team around his memory in the intermission between the second and third overtimes.
"I thought we just needed a little inspiration from above. I knew we were hanging on by a thread," Moroz said. "There's different moments in time when we need him and need a little extra boost and I think that's coming down from heaven, just to have that guardian angel for our team."
"Our year has been incredible," Laxdal said. "The first team in WHL history to win a Game 7 [of the final] on the road, the longest game in Memorial Cup history. These kids are writing their own story. Hopefully we can finish the book on Sunday."
That is when the Oil Kings will face the formidable challenge of top-ranked Guelph in the championship game. Guelph has yet to be tested in London, winning their three preliminary-round games by a combined score of 18-7. They will come into the game with three full days of rest.
"We have that momentum. They have the time off. It's going to be a cool mix," said Lazar. "It's going to be a 60-minute game – hopefully 60 minutes – but we'll just go out there and leave it all on the ice."