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London Knights’ 2012 Playoffs Part 3/3: Memorial Cup Final

June 4, 2012

The team of destiny versus the team that wasn’t supposed to make it this far. That’s what the 2012 Memorial Cup final game felt like.  Although the London Knights had played the minimum number of games in the tournament to reach the final, it seemed like everything was on the side of the hometown Shawinigan Cataractes.  Fans whose teams were now out of the running were rooting for the founding team from the QMJHL that hadn’t won a Memorial Cup in their history.

Not only would a win erase the years of waiting, but it would be a win at home. Something to which London’s fans could relate. In 2005, the Knights were the team of destiny, setting league records and dismissing a Sidney Crosby-led Rimouski Oceanic team in the final. This year, they were the would-be giant killers.

A loud and over-filled house greeted the London Knights and the Shawinigan Cataractes as they hit the ice for the final game of the CHL season.  London had trapped their way to the final, losing just one game and managing without a viable powerplay.  Shawinigan had played the maximum number of games possible to reach the final and were riding high after successive wins and a return to their regular season form.

As with all games played against the hosts, London wanted to score early to take the crowd out of the game. The crowd in this case, was providing non-stop, loud droning on vuvuzela-like horns. It was also widely surmised that far more than a capacity crowd took in the game, upping the noise levels.  Requests to refrain from their use were announced during the second intermission, but while reducing the noise, it didn’t eliminate it. It came to a point where I turned the sound off because it was far too obnoxious for this fan to take – who knows what it did for the players?

The Knights started exactly to their script – an early goal from the Rupert/Watson/Rupert line and some uncertainty entered the arena.  The ice gurus from Edmonton had made their appearance on an emergency call after the first round-robin games as teams were contending with fog and terrible ice conditions due to the unseasonably warm weather.  They’d apparently worked their magic through the latter half of the round-robin, but the fog was making its appearance again. A possible boon to the scrappy Knights?

Typically the Knights play well with a lead, but a one-goal lead is difficult to defend. It was obvious to all that the referees had pocketed their whistles and the game had already taken on the appearance of an overtime game when undrafted Anton Zlobin potted the tying goal early in the second period. If the atmosphere had appeared thunderous prior to the game, it was absolutely ear-drum breaking after the Cataractes tied the game.

With only a penalty each after that goal, each rush, each shot from the Shawinigan side caused a collective exhalation in the arena when Houser made the save.  It wasn’t the tentative Houser from the early games of the tournament, but the confident, MVP-winning Michael Houser that made his appearance in the finals.  Unfortunately for the Knights, Gabriel Girard chose to continue his stellar run at the Memorial Cup, making some incredible saves as London threw everything they could manage at him.  The little goaltender made good on his team’s trust after sitting out the first game of the tournament.

The third period was more of the same, limited but choice opportunities that saw save after save being made at either end of the rink.  Seconds before the buzzer went to end the period, Austin Watson saw the best chance of game slip off his stick beside an open net. That opportunity would likely haunt him as they headed to overtime.

If the fans thought the refs had put their whistles in their pockets early in the game, they were shown that they’d actually been either swallowed or left behind in the dressing rooms because trips, hooks and holds went uncalled to the displeasure of the crowd. Shifts were short and opportunities were rare as the lads on each side started to feel the fatigue.  Perhaps it was the extra rest or training prior to the Cup tournament or the adrenaline running high, but the boys from Shawi seemed to continue to find that extra gear.

Towards the end of the first overtime period, the Cataractes pressed into the Knights’ zone, and a sharp shot from sniper Zlobin into the far corner of the net low, ended the game and started the rambunctious party in Shawinigan. My heart went out to Michael Houser as he knelt, head bent, in his crease. Tears would flow later, from the netminder who had just recently been named CHL Goaltender of the Year. All the awards for nought when the big prize is lost.

Having celebrated a Cup win at home, its hard to take anything from Shawinigan because they were consummate hosts, and deservedly won a hard-fought game. They played hard just to get to the final and then throughout the game, appeared to have some of the more dangerous chances and scored on an ace of a shot in overtime.  No pinball-like shot off three legs and a post or some wild bounce from crummy ice. That was, as they say, a goal-scorer’s goal.  Some NHL teams ought to be looking at Zlobin later this month, I would think.

To the Cataractes, kudos on a great tournament. A great game and some heroics from Anton Zlobin and Gabriel Girard just brought a lot of joy to fans and players alike. Enjoy it – London’s had that feeling and its great.

And the Knights? They took it hard, of course, because there are some of them who won’t have another chance – they’ll be heading off to the NHL, AHL or other parts unknown to date.  For the core of the team, though, there will be a high probability that they will return next season to challenge again for the opportunity, just the opportunity to compete for the Cup they just lost.

Game Stars: Anton Zlobin (Sha), Morgan Ellis (Sha), Austin Watson (LDN)

Parting thoughts: How did Girard not get a star? Sad goodbye to seeing Austin Watson block shots, score timely goals and lead by example. Good luck with the Preds, Austin – every team needs a guy like you! And cheers to Anton Zlobin and his Russian flag – good on ya, kid.

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