At the end of a star-crossed week in which his team was undone by the whimsy of a Zamboni door, an injured star and a case of the flu, Moncton Wildcats coach Danny Flynn was asked what he will remember most about his abbreviated run at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
"I'll remember how hard our kids worked to get here, how tired and banged up we were," he said late Tuesday night. "These kids had all kinds of excuses and nobody quit."
The Wildcats were eliminated from the tournament with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Windsor Spitfires, suffering a third straight defeat in the round robin when a single win would have offered redemption.
The result means there will be no tie-breaker game on Thursday, leaving the Brandon Wheat Kings and Calgary Hitmen to face each other in the semifinal on Friday, playing for the right to face the Spitfires in Sunday's championship final.
Wellwood pots winner
Eric Wellwood scored at the 12:22 mark of the first overtime period to seal the win. Spitfires goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 38 saves to help secure the victory and a 3-0 record for the Spitfires, who battled through the haze of indifference in the first two periods of the game.
"They played really well, and we knew they would," Wellwood said. "Any time your season's on the line, you're going to play your best game. And I don't think we were as mentally focused as we were in the other games, knowing we were going straight to the finals."
For all of their determined pre-game talk to the contrary, the Spitfires fielded a roster of mostly empty jerseys for the first half of the game.
A day after Windsor clinched a berth directly into Sunday's championship, the coaching staff had already begun debating how best to occupy a group of teenage players during a four-day break in action.
Day of rest
A Mini Putt tournament had been scheduled, as had an outing to a local bowling alley and visits to one or more elementary schools. The only day of prescribed rest would be Wednesday.
"I'm not going to lie, it's tough to get up for games like that," Spitfires winger Taylor Hall said. "We have a lot of competitive games in our room and, I think after the first 10 minutes, we realized we weren't playing well at all, and guys just weren't going to settle for that."
Moncton did its best to occupy the superior team on Tuesday, even without leading scorer Nicolas Deschamps, who had been listed as a game-time decision. The 20-year-old finished in a two-way tie for the QMJHL regular-season scoring title but had not played since suffering what had been reported as a high ankle sprain in a playoff game on April 23.
Deschamps skated in full equipment Monday and participated in a pre-game workout with the Wildcats again on Tuesday but was ultimately made a scratch. Moncton also left goaltender Nicola Riopel on the sidelines for the first time in the tournament, turning to backup Shane Owen in relief of his 0-2 counterpart.
The Wildcats did not come across as a desperate team. Moncton skated instead as it had in the opening two periods of its opening game, when its workmanlike approach helped it build a 3-0 lead over the Calgary Hitmen — before a late collapse led to a crushing 5-4 defeat.
Forward Randy Cameron gave Moncton a 1-0 lead with a power-play goal late in the first period against Windsor, only to have the Wildcats fumble their good fortune. Spitfires defenceman Cam Fowler scored on a power-play 76 seconds after the opening goal with a blistering shot from the shallow point.
The Spitfires took a 2-1 lead five minutes into the second period after winger Taylor Hall confounded Owen with a crisp pass over to teammate Justin Shugg, who scored his first goal of the tournament.
Windsor goaltender Philipp Grubauer, whose stable play had often been overshadowed by his team's overwhelming offence, made a handful of key saves. He stopped Moncton captain Scott Brannon at point-blank range on a Wildcats power-play, and was beaten on the opening goal only because of a fierce screen.
Brannon earned a measure of revenge when he beat Grubauer in the third, and Moncton appeared to wrest the momentum away entirely with a goal from Brandon Gormley only 29 seconds later. But the Spitfires tied the game at 3-3 within two minutes, on a goal by Stephen Johnston.
"It was heartbreaking," said Owen, who made 48 saves in the loss. "We gave it our all."