SHAWINIGAN, Que. — Anton Zlobin sat on the Shawinigan Cataractes bench, too exhausted to take his next shift.
It was the final of the MasterCard Memorial Cup and the score was deadlocked at one with the game in the dying minutes of the first overtime period against the London Knights.
The star winger, not exactly a defensive specialist, was worried that he might become a liability if the Cats lost the faceoff in the Knights zone.
"Go! Just go!," Shawinigan coach Eric Veilleux told him. "He went for 10 feet and came back. He's like, if we lose the faceoff and the puck gets out (of the zone) I'm coming off.
"I said, 'No problem, you have a deal.' We lost it, but the puck stayed there. He scored."
It was meant to be, the 19-year-old said, even though he could not recall how the puck went past Michael Houser into the London Knights' goal.
"Eric just told me 'Go!' I think he was feeling I would score this goal."
For the record, Zlobin fired the puck from the right circle after taking a pass from captain Michael Bournival at the 17:51 mark of the extra period. The red light sent the packed house at Centre Bionest – most of them wielding super-powered air horns – into a frenzy. The Cats pounced on each other, while the Knights stood there stunned.
"I just threw my gloves in the air and went to jump on (Zlobin)," said Michael Chaput, who was named tournament MVP with 12 points in six games. "In situations like this, you never get hurt – you're so happy."
But not everyone left the ice unscathed.
"I was so excited," said Zlobin of scoring his second goal of the game. "I body-checked the referee and I took him down with me."
The Cataractes' home rink was so full, people were sitting on almost all of the staircases two-by-two. The PA announcer did not even bother to announce the official attendance, lest the fire marshal come calling at the 4,125-seat arena. The official crowd of 5,250 was announced later – the largest crowd the building had ever hosted for a Cataractes game. It was the first Memorial Cup victory in the history of the 43-year-old franchise.
"They've wanted this for 43 years and they finally got it," said veteran defenceman Morgan Ellis, who was acquired at the January trade deadline, and played huge minutes Sunday night with partner Brandon Gormley. "They deserve it, they're the most passionate fans ever.
"We deserve it, too."
People in the stands were seen wiping away tears of joy and they weren't the only ones caught up in the moment. Zlobin's Russian counterpart Kirill Kabanov, who notched two assists, was so emotional he practically cried his way through the first wave of on-ice interviews before skating around with his iPad to record the celebration.
"I said I wasn't going to cry," said Kabanov, a New York Islanders' draft pick, through the tears. "It's the most beautiful feeling I've ever had. The emotions took over me. It's the best day of my life for sure.
"This city will go crazy. What about me? I go crazy, too. It's the most beautiful day of my life."
A Russian flag bearing the numbers of Zlobin (79) and Kabanov (77) in masking tape made its way down to ice level and the pair took turns using it as a cape and posing for pictures with various friends and family. Zlobin spent much of his time this season with his compatriot since Kabanov's mother, Natalia, often prepare home cooked meals for the pair. The undrafted Zlobin said having Kabanov, who came to the team via trade in October, around was good for him. When Zlobin came to Shawinigan a year ago, not being able to speak either French or English, made him feel like an outsider.
"I didn't feel like I fit on the team," said Zlobin.
That's quickly changed.
''He played the best game of his life,'' said Chaput, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect. ''Without him, we wouldn't have won this championship."
Needless to say, the party went well into Monday morning. A good hour after the game there were people still on the ice honking air horns and posing for pictures. The celebration was particularly sweet for Veilleux after there were many around town and in the Quebec media who called for the head coach to be fired after the second seeded Cataractes were ousted in the second round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs. As the host team, the Cats had to wait a month before the start of the tournament, giving the critics plenty of time to hone their arguments for the coach's dismissal.
"I'm sure you know how I feel, I feel great," said Veilleux, calmly after the game. "You should ask how (the naysayers) feel now."
The Cataractes, who played four games in five nights en route to the title, became only the second team in tournament history to win the Memorial Cup after having played in the tiebreaker game. They were able to knock off the WHL-champion Edmonton Oil Kings handily 6-1 in the rubber match to decide who got to stay in the tournament. The Cats then scored what many considered to be the upset of the Canadian Hockey League season, when they eliminated the defending Memorial Cup-champion Saint John Sea Dogs 7-4 to advance to the final.
''There are no words for that feeling," said Chaput. "We worked hard the whole tournament and we came back in the tiebreaker.
"We proved everybody wrong.''