Antoine Bibeau bought the Val-d’Or Foreurs valuable time at the Memorial Cup with his 51-save shutout Friday.
Val-d’Or didn’t have a full tank mentally or physically in a 1-0 win over the host London Knights to kick off the tournament.
They’d won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title in a Game 7 on Tuesday in Baie-Comeau, Que.
But Bibeau’s heroics allow the Foreurs to rest on that important first win of the tournament for two days before facing the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm on Monday.
“It really was Bibeau who made the difference tonight,” Foreurs forward Anthony Mantha said. “Winning this game gives us a little break, gives us two days off and we come back strong on Monday. It’s just a confidence-builder for our team in general.”
Mantha, a first-round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings, scored in the first period for his 82nd goal in as many games for the Foreurs this season.
Among Bibeau’s pivotal saves was getting his blocker on a penalty-shot attempt by London forward Bo Horvat early in the third period and stopping Knights captain Chris Tierney on a breakaway in the first.
The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect faced an average of 40 shots a game in the final four games of the QMJHL final series against the Drakkar, which set him up for Friday’s performance.
“In the last couple of weeks I was used to receiving lots of shots, so I think I was just ready and I was just trying to give the team a chance to win tonight,” Bibeau said. “We wanted to get the first win as quick as possible.”
The Memorial Cup has been awarded to Canadian junior hockey champions since 1919 in memory of those who died in the First World War. The tournament includes the Ontario, Western and Quebec champions as well as the host team.
The Western Hockey League champion Edmonton Oil Kings face the OHL’s Storm on Saturday.
The team with the best record after the preliminary round earns a bye to the final May 25. The second- and third-place teams meet in the semifinal May 23.
If two teams are tied for third, a tiebreaker game is played. The Foreurs guaranteed themselves at least a tiebreaker game with their win Friday.
This year’s tournament opener featured the least-rested team against a hockey club playing its first game in five weeks. The Knights were eliminated in the second round of playoffs by Guelph on April 11.
The hosts Knights held the Foreurs scoreless on a pair of two-man advantages in the first two periods and outshot them 51-28.
London goaltender Anthony Stolarz played his first game in over seven weeks because of an eight-game suspension in the post-season. Stolarz played well in stopping all but one shot in front of a capacity crowd at Budweiser Gardens.
The weary Foreurs sometimes reached for a pass instead of skating for the puck.
“We need to play a little bit better defensively,” head coach Mario Durocher said. “I think at one point we were mentally tired and we started to run all over in our defensive zone.”
London was one of three teams who scored over 300 goals in the OHL this season.
But the Knights didn’t recover their scoring touch despite three power-play chances, the penalty-shot opportunity and pulling Stolarz for an extra attacker with almost two minutes to go.
London also shot the puck wide of the net several times when they had a shooting lane.
“It’s definitely a critical moment and I’m definitely kicking myself for not scoring on that,” Horvat said of his penalty-shot attempt. “There’s not much you can do about it now. Learn from it and not dwell on the past.
“Yeah, missed nets. We probably had 10 missed nets. I think we could have had 60 shots. Maybe that’s something we have to start thinking about and starting burying out chances.”
The Knights face the Oil Kings in their next game Sunday. This is London’s third straight trip to the Memorial Cup after winning the OHL championship the previous two years.
The Knights lost to Shawinigan in overtime in the 2012 final and were eliminated in last year’s semifinal by the Portland Winterhawks in Saskatoon.
Bibeau, a 20-year-old from Victoriaville, almost had a goaltender’s worst nightmare in the first period.
While waiting for the puck to drop for a faceoff at the far end of Budweiser Gardens, he looked up at the scoreboard a little too long and looked down just in time to close his legs on the puck.
“The 200-foot (save) was easy. It was just me. I wasn’t ready,” Bibeau said. “I saw the puck at the last second. It was an easy save, but a key save I think.”
Mantha, six foot five and 204 pounds, swooped from Stolarz’s left and tucked the puck under the Knights goaltender on his stick side at 16:20 of the first period.
The game was scheduled for 7 p.m., but the puck dropped 34 minutes later because of pre-game ceremonies that included the song “Highway of Heroes” by The Trews.
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