Michael Chaput remembers so well the pain. It wasn't so much from his Shawinigan Cataractes being eliminated early from the QMJHL playoffs, but rather from the intense training regimen that head coach Eric Vellieux put his team through in the 30-something days leading to the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
They'll need that preparation more than ever on Friday night when the host Cataractes play their thirdgame in as many nights against their Quebec Major Junior Hockey League rival Saint John Sea Dogs in the tournament semi-final.
"Right now it's working very well for us," said Chaput, of their fitness level. "The boys are in shape and we have a lot of energy and legs on the ice. [Friday's] going to be our third game in three nights, but I think we'll have the energy for it."
The Cataractes (2-2) advanced after dismantling the Western Hockey League-champion Edmonton Oil Kings (1-3) in a 6-1 rout Thursday, which included a four-goal second period. Despite beating Shawinigan in the tournament opener last Friday, the Oil Kings never hit their stride, playing lifeless hockey – even when their season was on the line.
"We just didn't play Oil Kings hockey from the start, never a full 60-minute game," said defenceman Keegan Lowe, the son of former NHLer and current Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe. "There's not much to say, I'm sorry."
The Cats, on the other hand, came out flying despite having played the night earlier against the Sea Dogs in a nasty game that featured a number of silly skirmishes in the final seconds. The Cataractes lost the game 4-1 and also lost their composure, capped by Veilleux climbing atop the glass to engage in a heated war of words with Sea Dogs general manager and assistant coach Mike Kelly. Both teams were fined $2,500 Thursday by the Canadian Hockey League for "conduct prejudicial to the welfare of the game and the tournament."
A win in that game would have put the Cats through to the final. Instead the loss gave the Ontario Hockey League-champion London Knights (2-1) a free pass to Sunday's final with five days of rest.
"We knew what was at stake last game, but we dropped the ball," said Cataractes defenceman Morgan Ellis, one of six players to score in Thursday's rout. "We came out to a slow start last game. We knew we needed a big start and the first goal – luckily that happened. It got the momentum behind us and the fans, and when they're behind you off the bat it's a real big boost."
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Shawinigan used the month's sabbatical after being eliminated from the QMJHL playoffs to hold what Vellieux called a "mini-camp" for his team with trainer Jimmy Thompson. During that time, the team would spend their days practicing and then doing a drill called "mountain climbers" where they'd have to skate from the different lines in each zone back and forth. The drill had to be done within 47 seconds, the equivalent of a normal-length shift in a game. If it took longer, you'd have to do it again.
"It was hard; it's not something you'd want to be doing," said Chaput, the tournament's leading scorer with three goals and five assists in four games. "But it helps a lot. We always had hard practices and then we'd have to do that, so basically it was like playing a game and then having an overtime after that, and you had to go your hardest or you'd have to do another one.
"You'd have to give it your all, so that was very good for us."
Veilleux said with Thursday's game behind them his team would take a break – a whole half an hour – before beginning to prepare to face the Sea Dogs for the second time in three nights.
The coach, who was in a better mood Thursday after his team's dismal effort against Saint John the previous evening, said his mini-camp wasn't only about preparing the players physically for the tournament grind.
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"They were tested mentally as well, believe me," said Veilleux. "That training camp was really demanding, really tough… that was best shape these guys have been in, forever, so they've got to be confident about themselves especially with the approach of [Friday's] game."
The Cataractes have shown signs of improvement in each game of the tournament. In the rematch against Saint John however, the Cats will have to keep their emotions under control and try to get the same kind of early jump they used to put the overwhelmed Oil Kings back on their heels.
"They had too many chances last time," said Ellis of round one against the Dogs. "There were too many bad penalties, including ones by myself, and that has to be better because they have a deadly [power play]. We need to just get into the shooting lanes and shut down their top guys because [Sea Dogs star Jonathan] Huberdeau had two goals. If we want to win he can't be on the score sheet."
As far as Chaput is concerned, their last meeting isn't a factor for Friday's game.
"It's going to be a hard game for sure," said Chaput. "They're a great team but we know we have a good team also. We're not going to think about the last game against them – this is a new game and a new challenge, and [we'll] focus on that."