MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - Scott Stajcer’s eyes were red and raw as he stood answering questions about the unceremonious end to the Owen Sound Attack’s run at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
It was the 19-year-old goaltender’s first game of the tournament and his first start since May 10. He was pulled late in the third period after letting in six goals on 25 shots as the Attack were knocked out 7-3 by the Kootenay Ice in the tiebreaker game.
Facing the TV cameras and reporters, there were no mincing words. He took responsibility for ending the Attack’s season.
“We had to play a full game and we didn’t,” said Stajcer, who signed an NHL entry-level contract with the New York Rangers on the eve of the tournament opener a week ago. “I let in six goals in a tiebreaker game. I take the blame for this game. I can’t let that happen.”
“It’s a huge loss and pretty devastating for me. It’s really tough.”
Stajcer, like many of his Attack teammates, would not use the loss of star forward Joey Hishon and captain Garrett Wilson as the principal excuse for the loss, especially since the OHL champions grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period and only trailed by a goal entering the third.
“I think we could have beaten them tonight regardless (of missing Hishon and Wilson),” said Owen Sound defenceman Jesse Blacker. “We got up 2-0 and we let our guard down a little bit and they jumped all over us. Obviously, it would have been nice to have those two guys in the lineup because they’ve been a key part all year.”
“I’m not going to come back and say we shoulda, woulda, coulda with those guys,” added teammate Robby Mignardi. “The opportunity was there for the rest of us.”
Hishon suffered concussion-like symptoms after Ice captain Brayden McNabb caught the head of the ultra-skilled forward with an elbow during the two teams’ opening game, which the Attack won 5-0. Hishon hadn’t played since the hit and, according to Attack head coach Mark Reeds, had spent most of his time “sitting in the dark” back at his hotel room. McNabb was suspended one game for the incident, though that was of little consolation for the Attack.
"Our guy (Hishon) is going to watch, probably from the hotel room, and this guy (McNabb) is going to play and probably run their (Kootenay's) power play," said Attack GM Dale DeGray before Thursday’s game. "Is that fair?”
Wilson was injured on Wednesday night when he was hit into the boards by Mississauga forward Chris DeSousa in the first period, and was also suffering concussion-like symptoms afterwards. The Attack requested that Memorial Cup disciplinary chair Brian O’Neill take a look at the hit, but after a review, deemed that it wasn’t a suspendable offence.
The Attack kept the jerseys belonging to Hishon and Wilson hanging on their bench to provide inspiration in the all-important knockout game. It seemed to work, at least in the first period, when the Attack came out flying despite having played a tough game the previous night against the host Majors.
“They came out with heart, they really did,” said Kootenay goaltender Nathan Lieuwen of the Attack. “We were almost surprised they came out and pushed hard.”
Even Lieuwen said he could sympathize with Owen Sound’s plight after losing two top players. He said his team went through something similar when they had to face Mississauga in the round robin as McNabb, the Ice’s leader and top defenceman, served his suspension.
“It affects you,” said Lieuwen, who stopped 28 shots Thursday for his second straight win at the Memorial Cup. “It changes your team chemistry with the leadership and everything, so it’s a tough thing to do.”
The Western Hockey League-champion Ice will now face Mississauga on Friday night with the winner moving to Sunday’s final against the Saint John Sea Dogs, who haven’t played since Tuesday’s overtime loss to Kootenay. The semi-final appearance by the Ice comes as a surprise, given that the WHL title-holders dropped their opening two games in the tournament to Owen Sound and Mississauga.
Stajcer said he found out he would be starting on Thursday morning when Reeds called him into the office and gave him the news. The Attack had gone with goaltender Jordan Binnington for the first three games of the Memorial Cup after the 17-year-old made a surprise start in Game 7 of the OHL Final to help the Attack beat Mississauga to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
“I tried to prepare myself the best I could,” said Stajcer, who was yanked five minutes into the third period after two goals by Matt Fraser and another by Cody Eakin within a span of 3:46 catapulted Kootenay into a commanding 6-2 lead. “I did my best.
“I had to be better and I wasn’t.”
The Attack had played all three of their goalies – Stajcer, Binnington and Michael Zador – during the OHL Final with great success. This time, however, the outcome wasn’t as Reeds had planned with the Ice scoring twice while shorthanded.
"Everyone is going to ask the question about the goaltending change, but knowing my team I got the response I was looking for in the first period," said Reeds. "We talked about the goals they score shorthanded and two tonight really broke our back.”
Still, as disheartening as the loss was for the Attack, they can still take solace in their OHL title considering many in the league had picked them to finish in the bottom of the standings during the regular season.
“In training camp I read an article saying we were going to be 16th in the league (out of 20) and not going to make the Western Conference playoffs,” said Mignardi of the Attack, who missed the playoffs last season. “It was like, ‘Well, that’s what they think,’ and it was an us-against-the-world mentality all year. We won a championship. We’re the best team in the OHL.
“We beat all the doubters.”
The people who never doubted, however, were the fans in the city of Owen Sound who rallied around the team in huge numbers despite being the smallest market in the OHL. When the Attack won the championship at the Hershey Centre, there was an impromptu parade up Highway 10 en route to the Georgian Bay-based city in which fans in neighbouring communities came out, supported by fire trucks, police cars and even an ambulance to applaud the Attack as their team bus rolled through their small towns.
“Owen Sound people are crazy for us,” said Mignardi, an undrafted overager who’s attracted interest from NHL clubs after scoring 30 goals during the regular season and being a key component in the Attack’s OHL title run. “I’m going to give a huge thanks to them personally because some of the stuff they did during the playoffs was just over the top. I’m glad we could give them an OHL championship.”
And even though that was nice to say, the hurt from losing on Thursday night was still too fresh to forget.
“You don’t really feel it right now, but maybe when the (OHL championship) rings are on our fingers it will feel a lot better,” said Mignardi. “The OHL championship is a wonderful thing, and maybe that will float back to the front of my mind after tonight.”