BRANDON, Man. -- They scraped and they clawed through 21 playoff games over almost two months to get to where they were on Saturday, and as a reward for all of that hard work, the Moncton Wildcats were undone by the whimsy of a playing surface.
A shot around the boards took an odd bounce in the last 90 seconds of the team's debut at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, leading to heartbreaking goal that left the Wildcats on the wrong end of a 5-4 loss to the Calgary Hitmen. Tyler Shattock pounced on the loose puck to cap a four-goal rally in the third period.
Moncton had led by as many as three goals in the second period, but a late collapse allowed Calgary to score four times in the final 17 minutes.
It was the first game for both teams at this year's tournament, and the Wildcats will have to return to work on Sunday to face the host Brandon Wheat Kings.
"Hockey teaches a lot about life," Wildcats coach Danny Flynn said. "And probably the biggest lesson you learn in hockey is what you learn the first day you put on a pair of skates -- you fall, you get up, you fall again, and you get up again."
None of the players seemed quite sure where the puck hit. Moncton centre Ted Stephens said he thought it ricocheted off a crack somewhere in the Zamboni entrance. Shattock was still baffled, almost a half-hour after celebrating his good fortune on the ice.
"I'm going to have to watch the video on it," he said. "It kind of surprised me, too."
The result would have been a surprise to anyone who had tuned in to watch only the first half of the game. Moncton dominated the first period, dictating the pace of the game with a determined effort along the boards.
Moncton was the last team to qualify for the tournament, booking passage with a pair of post-season wins over rivals who finished with more than 100 points in the QMJHL this year. The Wildcats beat the Drummondville Voltigeurs (104 points) in five games, before eliminating the Saint John Sea Dogs (109) to win their second Quebec league crown.
The Wildcats owned the offensive zone in the early going on Saturday, as if they were ordained by the hockey gods to force a reeling opponent into a series of mistakes.
The most glaring led to the only goal of the period. Calgary fumbled with the puck in its zone, and one failed clearing attempt allowed Devon MacAusland to fire a mischievous pass across the front of the net, a pass that was deflected past goaltender Martin Jones to give Moncton an early lead.
Calgary stammered in response. The Hitmen were held without a shot through the first 11 minutes of the first period -- a drought that included a two-minute power-play -- and only managed three shots over the final nine minutes before first intermission.
"A lot of us haven't been in situations like this," Shattock said. "All the buzz might have caught us off-guard. And credit to Moncton -- they came out very hard, and they've got a very good hockey team over there -- but credit to us, for showing a lot of character."
Part of the reason might well have been the health of forward Brandon Kozun, a star who had been afflicted with a lower body injury. Kozun led the WHL with 107 points over the regular season, one more than heralded OHL counterparts Taylor Hall (106) and Tyler Seguin (106).
He was used sparingly in the first period, and was never a factor in the game.
Moncton broke through in the second, taking a 3-0 lead on goals from David Savard and Alex Saulnier, who finished with two on the night.
Tyler Fiddler finally broke through with Calgary's first goal in the second. The Hitmen continued to press into the third, with goals from Joel Broda, Giffen Nyren and Kris Foucault setting the stage for the oddest goal of the game.
Moncton goaltender Nicola Riopel tried to study the replay, but was still not certain how it unfolded.
"They played with desperation," he said. "They found a way to win."