SHAWINIGAN, Que. — Unlike his counterparts, Shawinigan Cataractes head coach Eric Veilleux has had a lot of time to sit and think about the MasterCard Memorial Cup. He's also had time to parse what went wrong when the tournament-host Cataractes were eliminated in the second round of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs by the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in seven games.
His team will take the ice for the first time in a month to face the WHL-champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the Memorial Cup opener on Friday. "In a short tournament like this it's very important for us to step in and get our legs going – keep things simple," Veilleux said. "There's a way to play intense, play physical and be smart and that's the way we've been preaching… starting with the game [Friday night]. The guys are very aware of the situation right now and they're ready to go."
In the regular season, the Cataractes (45-16-3-4) were the second-best team in the QMJHL finishing six points behind the defending Memorial Cup-champion Saint John Sea Dogs, who captured their second consecutive President's Cup trophy with a four-game sweep over the Rimouski Oceanic in the final. There were many who had called for Veilleux's dismissal after their early ouster, since many had expected a showdown with the Sea Dogs to settle QMJHL supremacy. During the season the Cataractes had bolstered their lineup by adding star defencemen Morgan Ellis (in a trade with Cape Breton) and Brandon Gormley (in a trade with Moncton). They also added highly skilled Russian forward Kirill Kabanov from Blainville-Boisbriand in an early October deal.
"There's a lot of skill with that hockey club," said Oil Kings head coach Derek Laxdal. "They're very explosive and with Gormley and Ellis, they've got a great back end.
"I know they didn't have the playoffs they wanted, but they had a good season and they're a very worthy opponent. They'll be playing in front of their home crowd with lots of energy. We've got to be ready for the first 10 minutes [of the game] because their kids are going to be excited to play."
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During their respite, Veilleux had his team play against a squad comprised of former Cataractes, which included members of the 2009 team that lost in Game 7 of the QMJHL final to Drummondville and Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pomminville. He also said he was a little taken aback by how hard his players were able to go in practice – of which there were many.
"The intensity and the [aggressiveness] that the hockey game demands, we pretty much had that in practices," Veilleux said. "I was very surprised with the guys' reaction towards [practice]."
And while the Cataractes were the first out, Laxdal's Oil Kings were the last to finish claiming their championship title in a hard-fought seven-game victory over the Portland Winterhawks which ended on May 13, less than a week before heading to Shawinigan.
"Our team really answered a lot of questions about the growth of our hockey club in Game 7," Laxdal said. "Obviously we're going to use the same formula that we used coming into the Memorial Cup. We want to make sure that we refocus real quick here and revamp our guys to get ready for Friday night."
This year's tournament marks the first time since 1996 that the top point-getting teams in the regular season from each of the three CHL leagues have made the tournament. The QMJHL champion Sea Dogs (103 points) were ranked as the top team in the final CHL rankings, OHL champion London Knights (99 points) were third and the WHL champ Oil Kings (107 points) fourth.
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The Sea Dogs begin their Memorial Cup title defence on Saturday when they play the Knights at Centre Bionest.
"Our expectations were that we were going to be the best team in the Quebec league this year," said Saint John head coach Gerard Gallant. "We knew we had a lot of guys coming back from last year's championship team, so we know we have a target on our backs. A lot of teams when they play against Saint John, that's the level they want to get to. Everybody plays their best games against us."
The Knights' biggest acquisition – outside of playoff MVP Austin Watson who came to the team via a trade with Peterborough – might be the return of former head coach Dale Hunter. Current head coach Mark Hunter said his brother, who recently left the NHL's Washington Capitals, will be a big help even if he won't be back behind the bench.
"It's going to be nice to have him as part of the team here again," said Mark Hunter. "He's a great eye-in-the-sky for us and hopefully he can help us win some games."
More than half of Gallant's lineup hoisted the Cup last year in Mississauga and there's no reason to doubt they could repeat close on the heels of the Windsor Spitfires, who won titles back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. They are even stronger this year with the additions forward Charlie Coyle – who left Boston University before the world junior tournament – and defenceman Charles-Olivier Roussel, who was returned to junior after starting the season in the American Hockey League with the Milwaukee Admirals.
"Last year was very successful for Saint John and we're not going to change much," Gallant said. "We're not to change much. We're going to come in here and have some fun, play hard and compete. We've got three different teams here this year and it's going to be battle."