The Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts are about to take on a team that just fired its head coach, and is rumoured to be knee-deep in financial problems.
The Cats would appear to be in the catbird seat. But not so fast, says Grand Falls-Windsor coach Shane Lukinchuk.
The first-place Cataracts open the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League’s best-of-seven semifinals tonight against the fourth-place Conception Bay North Eastlink CeeBee Stars at the Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium.
Game times are 7:30 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday in Grand Falls-Windsor.
The other semifinal has the fourth-place Western Royals facing the second-place Clarenville Caribous, the defending Herder Memorial Trophy champs, at the Hodder Memorial Recreation Complex in Deer Lake.
The series is beginning on the west coast because the Clarenville Events Centre was booked this weekend.
Game 1 is scheduled 7:30 tonight with Game 2 set for Sunday at 2 p.m. The next games in the series will be played in Clarenville Feb., 22, 23 and 24, if necessary.
“I don’t know what approach they (CeeBees) are going to take,” said Lukinchuk said about the Cataracts-CeeBees series, “but they’ve certainly had a lot of ups and downs this season.
“That said, their players have continued to battle hard, so we’re certainly not taking them lightly.
“They’ve got a lot of experience on that team and they got a character win over us out here earlier this month, which put them ahead of Gander Flyers and in the playoff race. Then they beat the Flyers to wrap it up.”
The Cataracts won 20 of 24 games this season, with one overtime loss, for 41 points, nine more than second-place Clarenville (15-7-2).
Lukinchuk says it all begins in the net where A.J. Whiffen, “has been nothing but fantastic for us all season.
“He deserves a lot of credit. He came up with key saves in key situations which is what you expect from a number-one goalie.”
Lukinchuk also praised the defensive and offensive work of his seven defencemen and “a collection of goal scorers” led by Andre Gill, who finished second in league scoring behind the Caribous’ Andrew Sweetland, with 37 points, including a league-leading 19 goals.
He said Gill was the sort of player that when he wasn’t scoring, he was helping out his linemates by setting them up for scoring opportunities.
“He was consistent throughout the season,” the coach pointed out.
Lukinchuk also said the success began, “with our executive and hockey operation guys who did a great job in putting the team together.
“A lot of the players have been together for a few years, so it was just a matter of adding a piece here and there. That’s easier when you have a mature group of players,” he said.
The Cataracts coach says preparing for a seven-game series is a little different than a weekend series during the season. Obviously, he said, there’s more urgency in getting things right.
“It means putting a little more thought into our attack and special teams. We’re looking for more structure in our game plan.”
He said while it’s certainly important to get the two wins at home to open the series, “I don’t think we’d change anything we’ve been doing if we fell behind in the series.
“We’re basically a defensive-minded team, and we want to make sure we take care of our own zone first and foremost.
“We know we’ve got guys who are going to put the puck in the net. They’ve been doing that all year,” said Lukinchuk. “But there’s no shortage of goal scorers on any of the playoff teams.
“If we can take care of our own zone, the rest is going to fall into place.”