If the best way to determine player popularity is by the number of jerseys with his name on the back in his home market, well, Gabriel Girard meets all the requirements. His team's website lists his hometown as Varennes, QC, a suburb of Montreal, but he played all five of his QMJHL seasons in Shawinigan with the Cataractes, capped off with a 35-save effort in the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup final game against London on Sunday night.
And if that isn't "going out in style" then who knows what is. Girard, along with Michaël Bournival, had the most jerseys in the concourse with his name on the back and two of three that were immediately available in the team's gift shop, the third being Kirill Kabanov. For the fans that stuck with Girard, he wasn't the team's regular starter during the season, they were able to celebrate something special.
Anton Zlobin scored both goals in the teams' 2-1 overtime victory over the Knights, but when the three stars were announced in the building, Girard's was announced last. With equipment, teammates and reporters flocking the ice, he didn't get the chance to skate around, and the 5,000-plus fans in attendance were too busy cheering and squeaking air horns to pay too much notice, but Girard really did deserve his first star honours that night.
"I cannot ask for a better end to a junior career," Girard said after the game. "Shawinigan is an incredible city. The fans are amazing. I think that's amazing what we're living right now."
The scene on the ice after the game was one of chaos. Reporters, photographers and family milled the ice, and the fans in the stands hadn't left. The Cataractes are the only remaining team from the original QMJHL in 1969 but hadn't won a Memorial Cup prior to Sunday's game. Everybody wanted to talk to Girard, who would later be awarded the Hap Emms Memorial Trophy as the Outstanding Goaltender of the tournament.
He finished 4-1, with a 2.08 goals against average, but most importantly, a .930 save percentage, with a .972 percentage in the final game.
Headed into the final, no goaltender had really stolen a game for their team. But London, out-played and out-chanced the Cataractes by nearly a 3:2 margin Sunday night. Girard held tight, keeping tight to his net on in-close opportunities, challenging the shooter on rushes and showed exceptional lateral movement, keeping his body square to the shooter on most shots.
Check out this Youtube highlight package of the final game. Several moments are courtesy of Girard:
He flashed the leather one or two times, but the save of the game came on a break in the overtime when Austin Watson fed the puck over to Andreas Athanasiou. Girard came across to rob Athanasiou with his right pad, but spun around, not being able to find the puck. "I knew I made the save but I did not know where the rebound was," Girard said with a bit of a grin. "I was a bit nervous but then I saw my defenceman with the puck in the corner so I was really happy."
It wasn't a defenceman rather, but former roommate Zlobin who ended up collecting the rebound on that play. Another teammate, back-up goalie Alex Dubeau, got the start in Game One of the tournament in a losing effort to the Edmonton Oil Kings. While Dubeau is only 17, he started 7 of the team's 12 playoff games and had 40 appearances to Girard's 36 in the regular season.
Dubeau said that after the first game, the coaching staff would be tight-lipped about the next game's starting goaltender until the night before the game. Once Girard had won the in the semifinal, however, Dubeau knew that it was Girard's team. "He was the guy, that's for sure."
"A big aspect of [Girard's] game is to keep his composure," Dubeau said. "He's a great guy and I've learned a lot from him. He's a good competitor and that's what we did all year long. We push and push each other to the max and we won. We won the Cup and that's the big thing."
So Girard, a 91-born player, will leave the reigns of the team to Dubeau, who had a .904 save percentage this season that was second among 94-born goaltenders in the "Q" this year to François Brassard and good for 7th overall in the league.
Whatever knowledge he leaves his teammate, the important thing is that Girard made the most of the end of his junior career. The team never won a league championship, but the Memorial Cup is the one that counts, rightfully or not, to the hearts of Shawinigan's hockey fans.