Giants defeat Medicine Hat to claim Memorial Cup
VANCOUVER (CP) -- The air in the Vancouver Giants' dressing room thickened with celebratory cigar smoke, while Michal Repik earned a pie in the face for scoring the winning goal in the Memorial Cup on Sunday.
The host Giants captured their first Canadian Hockey League championship in their short six-year history with a 3-1 win over the Medicine Hat Tigers in the final.
Repik, an 18-year-old Czech, scored a wrap-around goal on a beleaguered goaltender Matt Keetley at 15:05 of the third period for the winner at a standing-room-only Pacific Coliseum.
Keetley valiantly tried to hold his outgunned Tigers in the game by stopping 38 of 40 shots.
But the bigger, more powerful Giants wore Medicine Hat down. The speedy Repik, a prospect for the NHL draft next month, whipped out from behind the net to tuck the puck between Keetley's pads.
"It was like a huge weight was lifted off our shoulders," Giants forward Milan Lucic said. "We did a great job getting to Keetley getting pucks to the net.
"He still played a great game, but it got to the point where we had to do it. It was our time to win this."
Lucic, a second-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins, was named the tournament's most valuable player. The power forward from Vancouver had two goals and five assists in five games.
Spencer Machacek, with an empty-netter, and Vancouver Canucks prospect Mario Bliznak also scored for the Giants. Goaltender Tyson Sexsmith made 14 saves on just 15 shots for the victory.
Darren Helm scored for Medicine Hat in the losing cause.
Vancouver had lost three straight to Medicine Hat heading into the final. The Tigers won Game 6 and 7 of the Western Hockey League championship series between the two clubs, prevailing in double overtime in Game 7 to take the title.
That foiled the Giants' bid for a second straight WHL championship, but Vancouver was still in the Memorial Cup as the host club.
"There's not many times you lose a championship and get a chance to win a Memorial Cup," Giants coach Don Hay said. "We didn't want that to slip by."
Medicine Hat also beat Vancouver 1-0 during the round-robin of the tournament to get the bye to final, while the Giants had to play an extra game and get there via a semifinal win over the OHL's Plymouth Whalers on Friday.
After eight meetings in the month of May, Vancouver had Medicine Hat figured out by Sunday.
The bigger, stronger Giants weren't letting the Tigers near Sexsmith when the teams were even-strength.
While Medicine Hat scored a power-play goal to tie the game in the second period, the Tigers were held without a shot on man advantages in the first and third periods.
The Giants were relentless pressuring Medicine Hat in their own end and fired the puck at every opportunity on Keetley.
"We just eventually wore down," Tigers coach Willie Desjardins said. "We didn't come here to finish second. Our dream was to win it and we just lost the dream."
The Giants knew from the puck drop to start the season they would play in major junior hockey's championship tournament for players aged 16 to 20.
The is both a blessing and a curse as teams can wilt under the hype and expectations. The Giants' slogan on their dressing room wall was "embrace the struggle."
"Don doesn't let you off the hook," captain Brett Festerling said of his coach. "He really holds everybody accountable to working hard and pushing themselves."
It was the third Memorial Cup championship for Hay, who coached the Kamloops Blazers to back-to-back Cups in 1994 and 1995.
The Giants had 11 returning players from the team that lost in the semifinal of last year's Memorial Cup in Moncton, N.B.
"That's a big key," Festerling said. "We got off to a good start this year and that's something we learned from last year. You can't get down. The guys did a good job of that and responding against the Whalers in the semifinal."
The Giants' majority owner is Ron Toigo, a real estate and restaurant mogul. He gambled six years ago on major junior hockey not just surviving, but thriving on the lower mainland where the NHL's Canucks cast a large shadow.
The 16,281 who took in the final at Pacific Coliseum raised the Memorial Cup attendance record to 121,561 and surpassed the previous mark by 37,775.
Minority owners of the Giants include Gordie Howe and Pat Quinn, who both attended Sunday's game.
Quinn won a Memorial Cup in 1963 with the Edmonton Oil Kings and thought he might be the only player and owner to win both.
"Today's result was the right result," Quinn said.
CP player of the game -- Matt Keetley. Tigers goaltender and Calgary Flames prospect valiantly tried to hold his team in contention for the Cup with 38 saves on 40 shots. He was also named the tournament's top goaltender.
Notes -- The 2008 Memorial Cup will be held in Kitchener, Ont., ... Giants defenceman Cody Franson and forward Kenndal McArdle won both a Memorial Cup and a gold medal at the world junior hockey championship, becoming the 18th and 19th players to do so ... The Giants and Tigers met 11 times this season with Medicine Hat holding a 6-5 edge. Eight of the games were decided by one goal, including three in overtime... The CHL announced its end-of-tournament awards and all-star team. Repik took the leading scorer honour on three goals and four assists, Matt Keetley of Medicine Hat won the top goalie award and Brennan Bosch of Medicine Hat captured the most sportsmanlike honour. The all-star team included Keetley in goal, Franson and Vancouver's Brendan Mikkelson on defence and Helm, Lucic and Repik at forward.