Underdogs and longshots.
Those are what the Shawinigan Cataractes were considered at the 2012 Memorial Cup, despite the fact that they were the host team. The Cataractes had a month-long layoff after their premature exit from the QMJHL playoffs, losing in Game 7 of a second-round series against the upstart Chicoutimi Saguenéens, an early departure that seemed to eliminate them from contention before the Memorial Cup tournament even began.
The Cataractes watched from Shawinigan as the Saint John Sea Dogs eventually won their second straight President’s Cup as QMJHL champions. After the London Knights won the OHL championship and the Edmonton Oil Kings won the WHL championship, the stage was set for all four teams to begin to contend for the biggest prize in Canadian junior hockey. All four teams were worthy candidates, each with a considerably deep and talented roster, but only one could be crowned champions of the Canadian Hockey League.
Before 2012, the Cataractes had hosted the Memorial Cup tournament once before. That was in 1985 and they lost in the finals 6-1 to the WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders, who had future NHL players Ken Baumgartner and Pat Elynuik on their roster. The 2011-12 roster did not want that piece of history to repeat itself, especially since they did not win the QMJHL championship in 1985 either. Additionally, the Cataractes sought to be the first team since the 2006-07 Vancouver Giants to win the Memorial Cup on home ice; in the four years since, the Memorial Cup hosts had lost in the final three times and once in a tiebreaker.
The Cataractes were put to work right away, playing in the tournament opener against the Edmonton Oil Kings, on May 18th. Keeping with recent Memorial Cup tradition, the home team wore a special jersey for the opening game of the tournament, one that pays tribute to the armed forces based out of Shawinigan. They hoped that it would bring them good luck and, for most of the game, it did. The Cataractes were down 1-0 early, though, after Kristiāns Pelšs scored only 2:41 into the first period. Less than six minutes later, Shawinigan drew even on a powerplay goal by Michael Chaput. The score remained tied throughout two periods. 61 seconds into the third period, Griffin Reinhart gave the Oil Kings a 2-1 advantage. At 5:40, Martin Gernát scored to give Edmonton a 3-1 lead. 57 seconds later, the Cataractes cut the lead to 3-2 after a goal by Anton Zlobin. Eventually, Shawinigan tied the game on Chaput’s second goal of the game at 13:19. The tie was short-lived as Henrik Samuelsson scored 23 seconds later to give Edmonton a 4-3 lead, one that they would never relinquish.
On May 20th, the Cataractes faced their next Memorial Cup opponent, the London Knights. Shawinigan head coach Éric Veilleux decided, however, to make one small change. He took out 17-year-old goaltender Alex Dubeau, who made only 21 saves in the opener against Edmonton, and replaced him with overage netminder Gabriel Girard. Despite the change, yet again the Cataractes allowed the first goal of the game; Josh Anderson gave London a 1-0 lead 10:47 into the first period. At 16:23 of the opening frame, Cataractes captain and Shawinigan native Michaël Bournival tied the game 1-1. Only 57 seconds into the second, Brandon Gormley gave the Cataractes a 2-1 lead; at 10:37, Loïk Poudrier continued his penalty-killing prowess, scoring an unassisted shorthanded goal to give the host team a 3-1 advantage. 22 seconds later, on the same powerplay, Andreas Athanasiou scored for London to make the game 3-2. That was as close as the Knights would get. Overage forward Pierre-Olivier Morin scored an unassisted goal of his own at 3:20 of the third period, followed by Gormley’s second goal of the game, a powerplay marker at 9:44. Michael Chaput capped off the victory with an empty-net goal at 18:15 to seal a 6-2 Cataractes victory.
Three days later, on May 23rd, the Cataractes faced their last opponent during the Memorial Cup round robin, the Saint John Sea Dogs. It was going to be a hard-fought battle since the Sea Dogs were the defending champions. At 4:19 of the first period, Jonathan Huberdeau scored to give Saint John a 1-0 lead. Not even three minutes later, things started to get chippy. Penalties started to get called for high sticking and slashing. After Pierre-Olivier Morin took a slashing penalty at 19:05 of the opening frame, the fifth minor between the two teams in the first period, Stanislav Galiev scored only 24 seconds into the powerplay to give the Sea Dogs a 2-0 advantage going into the second. The hostilities did not cease in the middle stanza either. Eight penalties were called in the sandwich session between the two teams. Two goals did manage to be scored in the second period, though. Ryan Tesink gave the defending champs a 3-0 lead at 16:05. Two minutes and 50 seconds later, Anton Zlobin scored the Cataractes’ only goal of the game, cutting the deficit to 3-1. By the time the third period came around, it was evident that the two clubs did not like each other. Six penalties were called in the first 16 minutes, including roughing minors to 2012 Canadian World Junior teammates Brandon Gormley and Nathan Beaulieu, which occurred during a scrum in which almost everyone on the ice was paired off. The dust settled long enough for Huberdeau to score his second goal of the game, an empty-netter to seal a 4-1 Sea Dogs victory. After Huberdeau’s goal, all hell broke loose on the Centre Bionest ice surface. Saint John’s Grant West and Shawinigan’s Vincent Arseneau decided to get into a fight, while Colorado Avalanche prospect Dillon Donnelly — an agitator for the Cataractes — was given a ten-minute misconduct and premature ejection with 42 seconds left in the game. The home faithful became restless and peeved at the officiating, throwing debris onto the ice. Six more roughing minors were handed out, as well as a double minor to Sea Dogs forward Aidan Kelly. Between the two teams, they combined for 72 minutes in penalties. More than anything, it meant that the Cataractes had to play in the tiebreaker to keep their Memorial Cup dreams alive.
It also meant that, if they were to win the Memorial Cup, they had to defeat every league champion to do so.
The Memorial Cup tiebreaker came quickly for Shawinigan. In fact, it was played on May 24th, the very next day. By virtue of the Sea Dogs’ win the day before, that meant that the Knights had a bye to the finals. The tiebreaker was against the Oil Kings and the stunning 4-3 victory by Edmonton in the tournament opener still left a bitter taste in the Cataractes’ mouths. This time, it was going to be different. At 7:30 of the opening period, Yannick Veilleux scored to give Shawinigan a 1-0 lead. With Tyler Maxwell of the Oil Kings in the penalty box for high sticking, the Cataractes got a 2-0 lead at 17:01 after Morgan Ellis fired a bomb from the point. Only 1:54 into the second period, Anton Zlobin scored to put Edmonton in a 3-0 hole. 62 seconds later, another Russian, Kirill Kabanov, scored an unassisted marker to give the host team a 4-0 advantage. Hometown hero Michaël Bournival scored a powerplay goal at 8:11 of the middle frame for a 5-0 lead and the Cataractes were not done there. Pierre-Olivier Morin scored his second unassisted goal, a shorthanded marker, at 13:59 to make it 6-0 for Shawinigan. Gabriel Girard was solid all game long despite losing his bid for a shutout when Henrik Samuelsson scored at 16:50 to make the score 6-1, which is how the game ended; the overager made 29 saves in the win.
The next night, May 25th, the Cataractes faced Saint John once again. They wanted nothing more than to defeat the defending Memorial Cup champions. Shawinigan fell behind early after Zack Phillips gave the Sea Dogs a 1-0 lead only 4:29 into the first period. Unlike the round-robin game between the two teams, the host team did not sit back on their laurels. The Cataractes scored two goals in three minutes, 37 seconds, to give themselves a 2-1 lead; Michaël Bournival scored at 6:51 and Brandon Gormley scored at 9:24 to give Shawinigan a 2-1 advantage. Saint John’s explosive powerplay, however, tied the game before the first period was over; Tomáš Jurčo scored at 12:35 to tie the game before the first period ended. Shawinigan showed that they were not going to be taken lightly again, scoring two goals of their own in the middle frame. Loïk Poudrier scored at 9:14 of the second period and, only 85 seconds later, Michael Chaput scored to make the score 4-2. The Sea Dogs, however, would not go away. Jonathan Huberdeau scored an unassisted shorthanded goal at 16:39 of the second period to cut the lead to 4-3. Jurčo scored his second goal of the contest at 9:16 of the final frame to tie it at 4-4. That was as close as Saint John would get. At 13:14 of the final frame, Yannick Veilleux scored to give Shawinigan a 5-4 advantage. With Sea Dogs goaltender Mathieu Corbeil on the bench for an extra attacker, Saint John fired everything they could at Gabriel Girard to try to tie it up; that was until Chaput scored his second goal of the night into an empty net with 52 seconds left in regulation. To put the nail further into the Sea Dogs’ coffin, Pierre-Olivier Morin took a pass from Mitchell Maynard and shot the puck high over Corbeil’s shoulder with only ten seconds remaining to seal a 7-4 victory.
With that, the defending Memorial Cup champions were eliminated.
Two league playoff champions were out and only one more remained. The London Knights, the only team that the Cataractes managed to defeat during the round robin, were the only barrier between Shawinigan and their first Memorial Cup championship in franchise history. The Knights were hoping that they could win their second Memorial Cup in seven years but the Cataractes did not want that to happen, especially after the recent calamities of host teams in the finals in recent memory.
Happily, both teams had the day off on May 26th. The Canadian Hockey League had its annual awards ceremony that Saturday night so it was a well-deserved break before the finals. Knights goaltender Michael Houser was riding high after being named the CHL’s top goaltender. He was hoping to add a Memorial Cup to what had been an impressive 2011-12 season for the native of Wexford, Pennsylvania.
As for the Shawinigan Cataractes, they had a different frame of mind. They knew that they could beat London; they had already done so. Additionally, the coming Thursday, May 31st, would be the 20th birthday of their captain so why not get him a Memorial Cup in front of his hometown faithful as a present?
A sellout crowd of 5250 piled into Centre Bionest to watch the Memorial Cup final, hoping to see history. As in the majority of the Cataractes’ games at the tournament, they gave up the first goal. Ryan Rupert scored at 5:42 of the first period to give the London Knights a 1-0 lead, a goal that seemed to fool Gabriel Girard. After that, Girard was solid, making highlight reel saves to keep his team in it. At the other end of the ice, Michael Houser was no slouch either. He was matching Girard save for save, making sure that London had a fighting chance. Early in the second period, the Cataractes got to him. A shot by Kirill Kabanov went off Knights defenceman Olli Määttä, as well as off Anton Zlobin, handcuffing Houser, tying the game at 1-1. Zlobin was eventually given credit for the goal. Both goaltenders shone during the third period but London came very close to winning the game in the last seconds. Knights forward Austin Watson shot the puck from the end boards and it ricocheted onto Girard, who kicked it out at the last possible moment. With that save preserving the score at 1-1, the game remained tied after regulation. There were only three penalties throughout 60 minutes and both teams readied for overtime.
Both teams got good chances, especially in the last five minutes of the extra frame, when they went back and forth. Each goaltender was giving his team ample opportunities to win. With time winding down in the first overtime period, at 17:51 of the extra session, Michael Chaput passed the puck from behind the net to an open Zlobin, who beat Houser low stick side for his second goal of the game and the championship-winning goal. He immediately threw his gloves and stick up in the air and dove at the blueline; hilariously, he knocked over the referee in the process. The Knights gathered around their teary-eyed netminder in complete shock over what had just happened. The Cataractes celebrated on the ice, hugging and crying tears of joy. Zlobin draped himself in a Russian flag that said ‘AZ 79’ on it, later draping it around his teammates, especially Kabanov, who had begun to be rumoured to be going back to Russia for the 2012-13 season.
They were no longer underdogs or longshots. They were… champions.
Gabriel Girard wept tears of happiness as he cut the netting, winning himself a Memorial Cup in his final year of junior hockey. He was later recognized with the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as the tournament’s best goaltender, an incredible accomplishment since he started the tournament as the backup.
With 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in six games, Michael Chaput was awarded the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as the Memorial Cup tournament’s most valuable player. He was further rewarded with being named to the tournament’s all-star team; he was joined by teammate Brandon Gormley; Michael Houser, Jarred Tinordi and Austin Watson of the Knights; and Henrik Samuelsson of the Edmonton Oil Kings. Zack Phillips of the Saint John Sea Dogs was awarded the George Parsons Trophy as the Memorial Cup tournament’s most sportsmanlike player.
Above everything, the Shawinigan Cataractes did something that no other team before them was able to do. As a team who had a month-long rest after being shockingly defeated in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs, they vanquished every league champion en route to winning their first Memorial Cup in franchise history. To make it even more impressive, they outscored their opposition by a combined score of 15-6.
Cataractes captain Michaël Bournival, the Shawinigan native who adorned a multitude of posters around the city in preparation for the tournament, and whose birthday was four days away, was presented the Memorial Cup by CHL commissioner David Branch, the smile ever present on his face.
For Gabriel Girard and Pierre-Olivier Morin, who were both overagers, it was a wonderful end to their major junior careers. It was incredibly sweet for Morin, who had seen the dissolution of his first team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs, during his QMJHL career. In fact, Kirill Kabanov also spent time with the MAINEiacs so the collapse of that organization affected him, as well. For Brandon Gormley, who was finally able to win a Memorial Cup of his own after losing the opportunity in 2010 with the Moncton Wildcats, the victory was a welcome relief, especially after a potentially serious neck injury kept him out of the majority of the QMJHL playoffs. For Michael Chaput, who graduates to the professional ranks, it was one last time to show how dominant of a major junior player he was; did he ever deliver. For Morgan Ellis, who was traded from a team he was captaining, it showed why he was one of the more underrated offensive defencemen in the QMJHL. For Anton Zlobin, the overtime hero, it showed that it was foolish to think he was overlooked in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft; maybe 2012 will be his year. For Loïk Poudrier, who showed that he is one of the best penalty killers in the QMJHL without the fanfare he deserves. For all the other young men who found themselves winning this beautiful trophy, they all contributed in so many ways. And especially for Michaël Bournival, who truly showed that home is where the heart is; this is one hell of an early birthday present.
This Memorial Cup championship brought out the best of a lot of young men who will never forget this moment, the moment they helped make franchise history.
Félicitations à tous!