Inspired by their late teammate, the Edmonton Oil Kings went to their seemingly bottomless reserves to win the 2014 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
The Oil Kings carried the No. 26 jersey of Kristian Pelss with them Sunday at Budweiser Gardens as they hoisted the trophy following a 6-3 win over the Guelph Storm.
Pelss was an Oil King two years ago when Edmonton won a Western Hockey League championship and lost their Memorial Cup tiebreaker in Shawinigan, Que. The 20-year-old Latvian died last year after diving off a bridge in Riga.
The loss of Pelss was an emotional touchstone for Edmonton this season and particularly for the eight veterans who were his teammates in 2012. Edmonton won the Memorial Cup playing with a fearless, indefatigable, physical brand of hockey.
“Everyone knows about the passing of Kristian Pelss,” Henrik Samuelsson said. “He was a good buddy of mine. I know he was watching over us today and he definitely had a part of it.”
The son of New York Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson scored a pair of goals, including an empty-netter, and assisted on three goals Sunday.
With four goals and three assists, undrafted Latvian left-winger Edgars Kulda was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“I kind of got lucky with that,” Kulda said. “I don’t know how I got it, honestly. It’s a pleasurable surprise for me. I’m happy to get that one too.”
Kulda contributed a goal and two assists in Sunday’s victory. Edmonton also got goals from Cody Corbett, Tyler Robertson and Mitch Moroz. Goaltender and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Tristan Jarry made 32 saves for the win.
Robby Fabbri, Stephen Pierog and Zach Mitchell replied for the Ontario Hockey League’s Storm, whose only loss of the tournament was the final. Guelph goaltender Justin Nichols stopped 40 shots.
Edmonton’s run to the Cup was a marathon in many ways. Two weeks before Sunday’s final, they blew a three-goal lead at home in Game 6 of their WHL championship series.
The Oil Kings had to travel to Portland, Ore., the following day to win Game 7 less than 24 hours later.
Their triple overtime semifinal win over the Val-d’Or Foreurs on Friday was the longest game in tournament history at 102 minutes 42 seconds.
Add in a double overtime loss to the Foreurs in the preliminary round and the Oil Kings had played the equivalent of two more games in the tournament than Guelph heading into Sunday’s game. In both overtime games, Edmonton had two-goal leads and third-period leads.
“We really did make it quite hard on ourselves, but it shows how much we play for each other,” Edmonton assistant captain Curtis Lazar said.
Guelph took the most efficient route to the final and were thus the more rested team. The Storm outscored their opponents by a combined 18-7 to go unbeaten through three preliminary-round games and earn the bye to the championship game.
Edmonton went 1-2 in the round robin, including a 5-2 loss to Guelph to open the tournament. But the Oil Kings played a strong two-way game Sunday using their size and toughness to both create the space to score goals and make the Storm pay a physical price for the puck.
Led by captain Griffin Reinhart, a New York Islanders prospect, they were a punishing team in their own end and were backstopped by the reliable Jarry.
“They out-willed us,” Storm coach Scott Walker said. “They were big, but we usually use our speed and we weren’t speedy tonight. When your let their size take advantage by not using your speed, it’s tough.
“I don’t think we played our best, but I’m not going to take anything away from them. They were the better team tonight. We played in fits and starts. I’m proud of the guys, but it’s a tough tournament to win.”
The Storm led 2-1 after the opening period Sunday, but the Oil Kings scored three unanswered goals in the second. When Guelph pulled within one in the third, Edmonton restored the two-goal cushion.
“We’ve got an unbelievable culture built here,” said Moroz, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick. “It doesn’t hurt when you have a guardian angel upstairs as well.
“It’s always storybook with us. We always believed in each other and we deserve this.”
A previous version of the Edmonton Oil Kings won Memorial Cups in 1966 and 1963 before relocating to Portland. This was the first Memorial Cup in the current franchise’s short seven-year history.
The WHL ended a three-year run of Quebec Major Junior Hockey League teams winning the Cup. The Oil Kings were also the first WHL team to claim it since the Spokane Chiefs in 2008.
WHL teams have won the most Cups since the tournament went to a round-robin format in 1972 with 19. The OHL has won 14 and the QMJHL 10.
The Memorial Cup has been given to Canada’s junior hockey champions since 1919 in memory of those who died in the First World War.
Sixty teams in the Western, Ontario and Quebec major junior leagues begin play every September. The three league champions join a host team in the annual tournament to determine the Canadian Hockey League champions.
The 2015 MasterCard Memorial Cup will be held in Quebec City.