Cataractes 'deserve' underdog status
They hear the whispers.
The Shawinigan Cataractes know there is a segment of the junior hockey population that thinks they don't belong at the Mastercard Memorial Cup, not even with the tournament being staged in their own back yard.
Edmonton, London and Saint John, after all, are champions of their leagues. They won their way here.
Shawinigan is the "host team," a designation people roll their eyes at like it's some kind of affirmative action program.
Bowing out in the second round of the QMJHL playoffs didn't help matters, either.
"We deserve some of it," defenceman Brandon Gormley said of the skepticism. "We didn't step up to the plate in the playoffs. We have a lot left to prove to ourselves."
And they intend on proving it, starting Friday night in the tournament opener against the Oil Kings.
"We're going to be the underdogs," said defenceman Morgan Ellis, who had 52 points in 60 games this year. "They're three champions and we're the host team, but we have skilled guys up front and on the back end and our goalies are good. We have nothing to lose.
"We played good in the regular season. We hit a speed bump in the second round and got put out, but we're a good team and we can compete with any of these guys."
The Cataractes were nobody's pushover in the regular season. They went 45-16-7 and had 97 points this year, second only to tournament favourite and defending champion Saint John in the QMJHL standings.
They allowed the fewest goals against in the Q this year and went 22-8-1-3 at home. But they haven't played since April 17, when they lost in seven games to Chicoutimi in the second round.
Like their very presence in this tournament, Shawinigan's ability to recover from a ridiculously long layoff is a matter of debate. To go four weeks without a game, then instantly flick the switch to do-or-die seems tough.
"It wasn't easy, for sure, it wasn't an ideal situation by any means," said Gormley. "But we took advantage of the rest and we took advantage of the practice time to get better. That's the only thing you can do."
To try and stay game sharp, the Cataractes played exhibition games against alumni and "AHL and Eruopean guys" and ran game-like drills in practice.
"When you're not playing in actual games you have to simulate that the best you can," said Gormley.
Many are expecting the combination of rust and opening-game nerves in front of the home crowd will put the Cats down early.
"They can think that, but I don't think that's going to be an issue with us," said Ellis. "We've been practising hard and we had a few exhibition games to get us ready. I know it's not the same pace as the Memorial Cup, but that's the closest we're going to get to it.
"We all feel great. We're going to be ready."
They look at it from the optimistic side. They're fresher than anybody here.
"I think we are in better shape now than when we were entering the playoffs," said Michael Bournival.
And losing in the second round, even if it didn't have the same finality that normally accompanies playoff elimination, scared the life back into them.
"Our elimination from the playoffs was a motivation for us," said Bournival. "We have a second chance."