Shawinigan, QC - They're Western Hockey League Champions, and yet a season that spanned 243 days ended too soon and on a sour note.
"It's tough," said a somber Mark Pysyk. "Not much we can say to the question that you can't really ask. It sucks. We came all this way and didn't play our best. It'll sting for a while.
"If we look back, it was a good year. We won the WHL Championship. We were playing within three days of when the CHL season ends."
"We didn't play to our potential. We're a better hockey team than what we showed," added 20-year-old Jordan Peddle, who played his last game as an Oil King.
Facing elimination, the Oil Kings had their best period of the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup in the opening 20, peppering Cataractes goaltender Gabriel Girard with 10 shots. At the other end, post-season MVP Laurent Brossoit wasn't as strong, stopping only eight of the 10 he was challenged with.
At the 7:30 mark, Shawinigan leapt out to a 1-0 lead -- one of only two goals they'd need en route to the 6-1 win.
With time and space to work with as the Oil Kings collapsed down deep, unknowingly abandoning their point coverage, Brandon Gormley bulleted a point shot that was redirected in by Yannick Veilleux at the doorstep.
Before long, it became a 2-0 game. Tyler Maxwell, who was already -1 on the night, was assessed a high-sticking minor 175 feet from his own net. On the ensuing Cataractes power-play, a long-range diagonal feed connected with Morgan Ellis who sent a cruise missile past a screened Brossoit.
Down 2-0 through 20 minutes, the shots were even at 10-10. With an 18-minute intermission to regroup, settle and assemble a comeback plan, it didn't seem possible that the never-say-die Oil Kings would crumble.
Just 1:46 into the second, an off-the-rush one-timer sailed past Brossoit, setting the score at 3-0 courtesy of Anton Zlobin on the Cataractes' first shot.
1:05 and one attempt on net later, Shawinigan extended to a 4-0 lead. A long distance wrist shot eluded Brossoit's grasp, bouncing off the end-glass and back in the scrambling goalie's lap. The Cataractes swarmed, eventually swiping the puck across the line as a mess of bodies littered the crease.
It was the dagger in what quickly turned into a one-sided contest.
The Cataractes' onslaught continued as Oil Kings couldn't get anything going. Striking iron one way turned into a chance -- and a goal -- at the other, as Michael Bournival and Pierre-Olivier Morin (shorthanded at that) each tallied before the period was 14 minutes old.
Just like a cat impatiently prodding and pawing at a ball of yarn, the host club's hunger was obvious.
"We never thought we were out of it," Peddle said. "When you're down 6-1, it's in the back of your mind (losing) but I like the way our team answered. We never quit."
"I tried to believe as long as possible," added Keegan Lowe, who ended the night with a rare +1 rating along with Henrik Samuelsson and Stephane Legault. "In the second intermission, we were talking about all the times we came back during the season. Everyone was being as positive as possible. We did not want to go out, roll over and die. We wanted to play with the heart that everyone knew we had and that we played with all year.
"I'm disappointed that we couldn't show everyone what we were truly made of, but there's no excuses now."
The sold-out Centre Bionest crowd was loud, proud and unintentionally cruel as a champion's season ended in tears and heartbreak. 11 nights earlier, it was anything but as the club celebrated its success at Rexall Place.
Such is the cruelty of competing for a national title once an intense, give-it-your-all post-season slate is in the books.
Edmonton's Memorial Cup leading-scorer, Samuelsson, spoiled Girard's shutout bid late in the second when he cashed with a slick, backhand-forehand move on a breakaway. That Oil Kings hadn't been shut out all season, and No. 10 made sure that impressive trend continued.
A three-game losing streak, on the other hand. Well, that's new.
But the Cataractes' four-goal, 13-shot second-period effort was too much to handle. As memorable (for all the wrong reasons) as the 1-3 record and 6-1 loss to cap a season-high losing skid was, it was still a season to remember.
A championship season. But it'll take some time for that to sink in.
"I was reading Wayne Gretzky's book and I remember a part where the Oilers were playing the New York Islanders one year. They were walking by their room on their way out and they were sitting back in their stalls with ice bags, laying back, bruised up, banged up and they realized that's what it takes to win.
"I'm not saying we didn't do that, but maybe it'll help us next year -- to know that we need to work that much harder."
"It will take a couple days to sink in," Peddle said. "No one's happy with the loss, but I'm sure in a couple days it will set in that we won the WHL Championship and that's a pretty big accomplishment."
"It was an outstanding season for our group," said a surprisingly upbeat Derek Laxdal. "I told them not to hang their heads, to walk out of that dressing room holding their heads high. It's short-term competition and anything can happen, and we lost.
"Our guys deserve a pat on the back. We've got 20 guys coming back out of a group of 25. Our goal is to get to Saskatoon next year. We'll be a little hungrier."
Brossoit, Edmonton's main man all throughout the post-season, was given the chance to come back and end his year in the crease where he belonged. While it didn't mean much on the scoreboard, it was an opportunity to gather his thoughts and establish a mental rebound heading into the summer.
"In the third period I started feeling better," he said. "It was too late, but I went out there and realized that I had nothing to lose and it was my last period of the season, most likely. The guys gave me so much support in the dressing room and I wanted to play for them.
"Throughout the whole tournament, I didn't feel like I was the reason we lost, but I feel like a momentum-builder save per game would have been huge. I felt like I didn't provide that. It's a s***** feeling."
Brossoit, 19, will return next season with Tristan Jarry pushing him. While he was a vital cog in the team's 50-win (68, if you include the post-season and Memorial Cup), 107-point season, realizing it now is nearly impossible.
"I went through such a long season and had so much success, then I came out here, played that way and it doesn't even seem like it matters. I'm going to try and pick my head up. I'm hoping that it adds to my strength. I hope to come back here, redeem myself and use the experience to learn some lessons and get better."
"You don't win unless you have great goaltending," added Laxdal, supporting his goalie. "He was the MVP of the Eastern Conference Final and the Western Hockey League Final. He's going to look back on this experience and build on it. It's part of development. Before you succeed, you have to stumble.
"He's been the guy all year."
For a team that's supposed to be better next season, 'there's always next year.' But you never know when you'll be back in the dance again.
"Who knows if we'll be back here next year, but I sure hope we are," Lowe said.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com on location in Shawinigan and Trois Rivieres, Quebec