2013 Memorial Cup: Zachary Fucale, winning goalie at age 17, reaches a new level in young career

SASKATOON, Sask. — Once it was over, Zachary Fucale could finally act 17 years old, practically running amok about the Credit Union Centre ice as the celebrating Halifax Mooseheads provided vocals and hundreds of their fans pounded on the glass to form the percussion section.

The goalie who is always praised for being the epitome of calm, cool and collected could not stand still. He would stop to talk, then politely excuse himself to keep moving, like the shark without a swim bladder, to pose for another picture. It was like a delayed onset of having to hold it together through the breathless MasterCard Memorial Cup final, where the Mooseheads held off two big surges by the Portland Winterhawks before Nathan MacKinnon's hat-trick empty-netter with 22.4 seconds left sealed the 6-4 win.

"I don't know how I feel, it's a feeling you can't describe," the Rosemère, Que., native, who made 40 saves on Sunday. "It's such an incredible feeling to win that last game. That was our goal all season.

"It felt like the longest game ever but now it seems like it went so fast," Fucale added. "As if the past two years flew by. This feels as if it isn't even real."

MacKinnon's five-point performance in the final will probably be replayed at Memorial Cup time for years and years, especially if the Nate the Skate fulfills everything that's been expected of him. For the record, MacKinnon laughed when asked if he had checked real estate listings in Florida, where the Panthers have the No. 2 pick in the NHL draft, or Colorado, where the Avalanche hold the first choice.

One talking point that might get buried is whether Fucale's fine tournament might be a test run to him wearing another red jersey in another 10-day tournament, the 2014 world junior championship. (He'd be a lock for 2015.) Every year, there's the same refrain that Canada is having a goaltending crisis, and some teenaged 'tender is set up to bear the brunt of a nation's neuroses for 10 days during the holiday season.

The WJC, of course, is junior hockey's Super Bowl. The Memorial Cup is its answer to Grey Cup — uniquely Canadian, not the same calibre of players, but as fiercely contested and occasionally more awesome.

While MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin made Team Canada last December, Fucale was not one of the four goalies invited to the selection camp. Such an opportunity is rare for a goalie in his age-17 season, so it was understandable. MacKinnon figures it will happen eventually.

"Zach could have played this year, he's an unbelievable goalie and he's got such a bright future. He's such a calm guy and we're thankful we have him on our team."

'They look at the kind of team we have and take away from how good he is'

Sunday, Fucale kept his head against a loaded Winterhawks team which forced the issue after twice falling behind by three goals. Portland, which got four-point nights from stars Nic Petan and Ty Rattie and a top-shelf goal from MacKinnon's draft rival Seth Jones, held nothing back.

Fucale kept coming up with saves that just kept upping the odds of a Portland comeback. His Memorial Cup moment came with eight minutes left, after MacKinnon's 4-2 goal. He stood up to an odd-man rush with a split save on Oliver Bjorkstrand. Halifax turned it up the other way and Konrad Abeltshauser scored what proved to be the eventual winning goal.

"Zach, he's been our rock all year," Mooseheads co-captain Trey Lewis said. "To lead a team like this to a Memorial Cup final as a 17-year-old goaltender, it's incredible. I've never seen a more focused goaltender in my life.

"I think people don't give him the credit he deserves," Lewis added. "They look at the kind of team we have and take away from how good he is, you know what I mean? All season and all playoffs and all this tournament, teams have had a lot of shots. Portland had 44 shots tonight and he was just incredible."

Fucale has been the goalie of record for 116 Mooseheads wins across the last two seasons, which is a career for most. At 6-foot-1, he has that suppleness of grace thing going on, able to shift his weight to adjust to shooters even while on his knees in the butterfly. He came into the tourney as NHL Central Scouting's top-ranked North American netminder for the draft, but this win reflects on how he does with the challenge of tournament hockey.

"He went under the radar a little bit, but I'm sure that when the draft comes, scouts will acknowledge the great year and the goalie that he is," Mooseheads coach Dominique Ducharme said. "He knows how to win. There's no doubt about his future."

None of this is a newsflash in Moose Country, of course. Fucale never looked ruffled when he played a rookie-record 58 games as a 16-year-old and helped the Mooseheads come back from 3-0 down in an emotional series with the Quebec Remparts. This season, he finished with a 2.35 average and .909 save percentage, but more importantly, didn't dwell on his down moments.

"He's continuing to show everybody that he's the No. 1 goaltender," Mooseheads GM Cam Russell said. "I think you'll definitely see him get a shot at world juniors and you'll see the same thing. He's just not the type of kid to falter and get down. He was a huge part of why we never lost two games in a row all season."

The traditional thinking in the CHL is that you cannot win it with a young goalie. Winning with a 17-year-old is unheard of; it's rare there's even an opportunity to talk about a Memorial Cup-winning goalie wearing the Maple Leaf at the next WJC.

'He'll never get down on himself'

The tournaments have some small similarities. Both are 10 days long, carry many distractions, and a goalie becomes the nerve centre for an entire fanbase. How this propels Fucale forward will be a talker next season.

"It's experience that you can't get anywhere else, with this calibre of competition," said Mooseheads forward Stephen MacAulay, the newly minted two-time Memorial Cup champion. "It's good for his confidence. Everyone knew he was a great goalie, but to be a winning goalie is something every team looks for. Hopefully it helps him in the draft.

"One thing I notice about Zach is his confidence level," MacAulay adds. "He's not cocky but he'll never get down on himself if he'll have a tough game. It doesn't come very often, but when it does, he's always positive."

Those are right-to-spec traits. And after holding it in all week, it was endearing that Fucale let all the pent-up tension flow though him.

"From start to finish, there were so many battles, we have to be proud of ourselves," said Fucale, who turns 18 on Tuesday. "My team, I have to thank them, I owe it all to them.

"Three times in a row now for the Q, every team wants to represent their league as best as possible.

"That's all I got."

It was more than enough. His play spoke for itself.

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.

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