In a hockey game that ends 2-1 in overtime, the three stars of the game are usually fairly predictable. The goalies, if they've played well, or the two goal scorers and the guy who pots the OT winner will most likely hear their names called for ovations. It's not often the first star is a stay-at-home defenceman who earns his bread by throwing himself in front of a very hard piece of frozen, vulcanized rubber propelled at great speed by men much larger and stronger than himself. When a man does that ten times in a single game and leads the league in doing so, however, people notice.
Josh Gorges this season has been the anti-Markov. After missing half of last year with a knee injury, he quietly returned on his surgically-repaired joint and picked up where he'd left off. The throw-in in the Craig Rivet trade has become one of the Canadiens' best, most reliable players, and one who has earned himself an important role in the rebuild the team is about to undergo.
There are many adjectives to describe the impression Gorges creates. Steady, worthy, fearless, upright, just to name a few. What he is, most importantly on this team that has seen its leadership group disintegrate this season, is a good example. When fans were bemoaning the fact that the Habs got a point that might help them rise out of the draft lottery in a nothing game at the end of a lost season, Gorges looked tortured by the loss. He stood in the dressing room after having been recognized as the first star, for his courage and willingness to endure pain in pursuit of victory, and he talked about how difficult it was to let the second point slip away. That's what the young players sharing this disappointing journey with him need to see.
In an organization's zeal to get younger, bigger, stronger and more skilled, it can overlook the qualities that bind all those things into a real team. Gorges will never be the biggest, strongest or best defenceman in Montreal, but he's the kind of player who can look anybody in the room in the eye and say, "I will do anything to win. Will you?" Every team, if it is to be successful, needs those account keepers; the guys who are able, through their own steadfastness, to shame better players into emulating them.
A team also needs to have guys who honestly, truly, hate to lose. Certainly, some guys are able to comfort themselves with the idea that there's always next game or next year, and feel satisfied in the fact that at least they tried their best to win even if it didn't work out. Gorges is the guy who will carry the burden of this season all summer, and will come to camp ready to block more shots and skate more minutes if it will help the team win. Young players can't get complacent with losing when they're sitting in the room with somebody who's tortured by it.
As the Habs evolve over the off-season and come back next year attempting to forget this one, Josh Gorges will play an important role in pulling the new incarnation of the team together. He won't score a ton of goals, and he won't make spectacular saves to bring home the shootout wins, but he will be the guy who inspires the teammates who do those things. He'll be the glue that helps put a broken, fragile team back together. And, sometimes, that makes a guy the first star of the game.
Afterthought: If Gorges were to be mic'ed up during a game, it might sound something like this.