The long wait is over for the Shawinigan Cataractes.
Anton Zlobin scored 17:51 into overtime Sunday, and the Cataractes were crowned MasterCard Memorial Cup champion for the first time in franchise history after a 2-1 victory over the London Knights.
The Cataractes are only founding franchise still intact from when the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was formed in 1969, but had never claimed the nation’s top junior hockey prize.
When Zlobin, an undrafted winger who was a scoring star in the tournament, took a pass from captain Michael Bournival in the right circle and fired it past Michael Houser to win the game, a explosion of noise burst from the jam-packed seats at the Bionest Centre.
“It was an amazing night,” the 19-year-old Zlobin said. “The most important night in my life.”
Zlobin had also scored in the second period to tie the game after Ryan Rupert had put London ahead in the first.
After he scored the winner, Zlobin leapt in the air and joined his teammates in rushing toward goaltender Gabriel Girard, whose heroics in a 34-save performance kept the Cataractes alive through nearly four periods in which London had the better of the play most of the time.
“He played the best game of his life,” said forward Michael Chaput, who was named most valuable player of the tournament with 12 points in six games. “Without him, we wouldn’t have won this championship.”
More than 5,000 fans were crammed into the 4,125-seat Bionest Centre, crowding into standing room and even sitting in the stairways, with air horns and Thunderstix adding to the din.
Previously, the closest the Cataractes had come to a title was when they reached the final in 1985, losing 6-1 to the Prince Albert Raiders. Shawinigan was the host team that year, but the final was moved to Drummondville because the old Jacques Plante Arena was considered inadequate for television.
“They’ve waited for this for 43 years and they finally got it,” said defenceman Morgan Ellis, who joined the club in a mid-season trade. “They deserve it and we deserve it, too.”
It was the first overtime in nine tournament games and it came with Shawinigan playing a fourth game in five nights.
The Cataractes had finished last in the round-robin portion of the four-team event and had to win a tiebreaker game against Edmonton just to reach the semifinals, where they ousted the defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
The Ontario Hockey League champion Knights were coming off a five-day break after they finished first in the round robin.
“That’s hockey, it was a tough loss,” said Knights coach Mark Hunter. “The boys played hard all year.
“I don’t now if it’s a character builder. It just hurts right now that we lost.”
London has a young team and should have 20 of its 25 players back next year for another attempt at a Memorial Cup.
For the most part, they played their trap and counterattack game masterfully against Shawinigan, keeping the Cataractes to the outside and launching strikes of their own off turnovers.
The line of Austin Watson with brothers Ryan and Matt Rupert was particularly dominant, but after their early goal, they either wasted or were robbed by Girard on chance after chance.
“We didn’t give them much,” said Hunter. ‘I thought we had the better chances than them and then in the overtime, they had a couple of better chances than we did.”
Final shots were 36-35 for Shawinigan.
The Knights had a 13-4 edge in shots in the opening period and got the first goal. Strong forechecking produced the chance, as Matt Rupert set up his twin brother Ryan from behind the net 5:42 into the game.
Shawinigan did not get a shot on goal in the opening 10 minutes.
The Cataractes picked up the tempo in the second period and tied the game when Kirill Kabanov’s shot went off Tommy Hughes’ stick and into the crease for Zlobin to put in at 3:01.
Then Zlobin did it again in overtime.
“I just saw Zubie shoot and the light go on and I knew we won,” Chaput said. “I was ecstatic.
“There are no words for that feeling. We worked hard to whole tournament. We came back in the tiebreaker and we proved everybody wrong. It was the most intense and nerve-wracking game of my life.”
The Cataractes had been knocked out of the QMJHL playoffs in the second round and had a 31-day break before hosting the Memorial Cup. They became the ninth home team to win.
It was the first final to go to overtime since 2001, when Red Deer beat Val d’Or.
The tournament all-star team had Houser in goal, with London’s Jarred Tinordi and Shawinigan’s Brando Gormley on defence, and Chaput, Watson and Edmonton’s Henrik Samuelsson as forwards.
Next year’s Memorial Cup will be in Saskatoon.
Notes: The co-presidents of honour of the tournament, Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur and president Geoff Molson, took part in pre-game ceremonies with ex-Canadiens Yvan Cournoyer... They got to see two teams with a Canadiens prospect as captain: Jarred Tinordi of the Knights and Bournival of the Cataractes.