Cataracts, Caribous two of provincial hockey’s most dangerous teams
Consider the upcoming Herder Memorial Trophy final purely from a numbers perspective, and your first inclination is that this series might turn out to be a Newfoundland senior hockey championship final determined by last goal wins.
That’s because the teams vying for the coveted Herder — the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts and Clarenville Caribous — were one-two in the league standings this season, were the highest-scoring teams in the six-team provincial senior circuit and boast eight of the league’s top 10 scorers.
“I suppose if you do look at the stats,” said the Caribous’ Ryan Desrosiers, “it points out that could be the case.
“But at the same time, we’ve only played four games against each other, and the first two were one-goal games.”
The Cataracts got the better of the Caribous in the regular season, winning three of four games. Grand Falls-Windsor swept a pair of games at home in the friendly confines of Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium, winning 5-4 and 3-2 in a shootout, before splitting the next two in Clarenville, taking a 5-2 victory before dropping an 8-4 decision.
The Cataracts finished on top spot in the standings, going 19-5, while the Caribous were 13-6, with another five losses coming via the shootout. Grand Falls-Windsor outscored Clarenville 124-116 while allowing 70 goals to the Caribous’ 81.
“When you look at the skill level on this team,” Desrosiers admitted, “I don’t think anybody would have thought our shootout record would be so dismal.”
Grand Falls-Windsor dominated the league’s scoring race, placing the top three players, led by imports Rob Hennigar (11 goals, 37 assists, 48 points) and Cam Fergus (21-20-41). Botwood product Andre Gill was third in scoring with a league-high 24 goals and 39 points.
Three more Cataracts — Brandon Nicholas, and defencemen Luke Gallant and Rodi Short — also finished in the top 10 with 28 points apiece.
As for the Caribous, Desrosiers (17-20-37) and Andrew Sweetland (13-17-30) were fourth and sixth in scoring.
To give one an idea of the calibre of play of the local senior loop, Hennigar and Sweetland have American Hockey League experience, Fergus played in the ECHL, Gill played professionally in North America and Europe, Desrosiers played Canadian intercollegiate hockey and Short and Gallant have Quebec Major Junior Hockey League experience.
Short, from the Goulds, and Nova Scotia native Gallant, figure to play a big role in this final series, running the Cataracts’ offence from the back end. Short was named the top defenceman in the West, but Clarenville’s Desrosiers maintains it’s Gallant, a former St. John’s Fog Devils star, who is the league’s best rearguard.
“No doubt he could step in and play pro, either in the ECHL or even the AHL, and be a top five D-man,” he said. “He does all the little things right.”
The Caribous have their own blueline stalwarts in import Martin Lapointe, a former Cataract, and Brandon Roach of Bay Roberts, who has AHL and ECHL experience.
Desrosiers, a 30-year-old product of New Waterford, N.S., who played five years of university hockey with St. Francis Xavier, acknowledges the Caribous had an up and down season with 13 wins against 11 losses.
It was a year, he said, when the panic button was pressed a little too much. Of late, however, the Caribous are hitting their stride, bouncing the pesky Mount Pearl H.J. Bartlett Blades in five games after securing a bye to the semifinal.
“I really think we’re coming together,” Desrosiers said. “We’re getting a lot of secondary scoring, so when you have your top scorers coming out of the gate supported by players like (Brad) Crann, Sully (Dale Sullivan) and Ryan Delaney, you’re in good position.”
Given the firepower on both clubs, it’s no surprise Gill figures special teams could decide this series. And while the power play will be important, the penalty kill will be critical.
Of course, it’s often said the best penalty killer is the goalie, and the Cataracts and Caribous feature two of the best in A.J. Whiffen and Jason Churchill, named the senior league’s top goalies in the East and West.
Whiffen was 18-5 for the Cataracts this season, with a 2.70 goals against average and .917 save percentage. Churchill posted an 8-6-2 record in Clarenville, with a 3.27 GAA and .899 save percentage.
“We have a lot of confidence in A.J.,” Gill said. “And when a team has confidence in its goalie, maybe you’re willing to take an extra chance.
“With A.J., he will make the routine save every time and the big save nine out of 10 times. He’s very athletic.”
The 2014 edition of the Herder, 79 years old this year, opens this weekend at the Joe Byrne rink when the Cataracts play host to the Caribous 8 o’clock Saturday night and 2 p.m. Sunday.
The series resumes next weekend with three games in Clarenville.