Corey Crocker knows what it's like to be on the losing end of a provincial senior hockey final. In 2001, he and his Flatrock Flyers teammates watched as the Deer Lake Red Wings hoisted the Herder Memorial Trophy after a hard-fought series.
"It's still a sour taste in the mouth," says Crocker, now coach of the Conception Bay North Eastlink CeeBee Stars.
"When you lose Herder, you never really get over it."
This weekend, as the Newfoundland Senior Hockey League kicks off its semifinals, Crocker leads his club into battle against the Clarenville Caribous, a team that won back-to-back Herder titles in 2009 and 2010 by beating the CeeBees in a pair of short-lived, five-game finals.
"It's definitely fresh in their minds," Crocker says of the C.B.N. players, "and they feel they have something to prove."
The series gets underway with Games 1 and 2 8 o'clock tonight and 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Clarenville Events Centre. The series moves back to Harbour Grace for Games 3 and 4 next weekend.
The CeeBees enter the post-season as the fourth seed, but with a quiet confidence about them. After posting an uncharacteristic 3-8-1 record before the Christmas break, the former perennial Avalon East champs turned things around in the second half of the season, going 5-2-5, getting points in nine out of 12 games.
"It's been a struggle since Day 1, and our team has made huge strides," says Crocker. "People say we lost a lot of shootouts, and we did, but those shootouts meant something (picking up single points in six games)."
The top-seeded Caribous, meanwhile, begin the playoffs on a bit of a slide. Undefeated in January, Clarenville dropped four of six games in February.
Head coach Ivan Hapgood, however, was somewhat thankful for the losses.
"We didn't have a run of two or three bad games this year. I don't care how good a team is, sooner or later it's going to happen. I was scared it wasn't going to happen before the playoffs.
"I'm not pleased with it, but it certainly made us realize there's good competition out there."
Included in their four February losses was a 7-1 thumping at the hands of the CeeBees. All seven goals were scored against Jason Churchill, the Caribous' No. 1 goalie and last year's Allan Cup MVP.
Hapgood says despite some bad bounces over the last few games, he still considers Churchill the best goalie on the island.
"To me, it's still Churchill's ball to run with. But at the same time, the leash is very short."
That's because the Herd have a backup goalie in Devin O'Brien who has proven himself more than capable, posting a 6-1 record this year, which included a pair of wins over the CeeBees.
"(O'Brien) hasn't been good, he's been great every game he's gone in," Hapgood attests. "Churchill feels comfortable knowing he has adequate backup. I just hope he doesn't feel too comfortable."
Who starts Saturday will be a game-time decision, as Churchill's work schedule in Halifax may not permit him to return until late in the afternoon.
Crocker, who will start Doug Jewer between the pipes Saturday, knows the CeeBees didn't get in Churchill's head with the lop-sided win. As such, the plan is to play him the same way they have all season.
"We've got to do things that'll make it tough on him. We've got to get net-front presence and keep pucks away from him on our dump-ins," explains Crocker.
Despite the disparity in the regular season standings, Hapgood believes the teams "are fairly evenly matched" but he thinks there's more pressure on his club.
"Because of the year we had, there's probably more on us coming in than what there is for the CeeBees. I would think after the game on Sunday afternoon (when the CeeBees locked up the final playoff spot by beating the Corner Brook Royals 8-5), they took a nice deep breath and said, 'This nightmare is over, we get a fresh start.'"
"It's going to be a hard fought series."
With the CeeBees' confidence at a season high, Crocker says they are more than ready.
"The 12 games we've played since Christmas have been playoff style hockey because we had to play that way to get there. I think our team has more to give."
Game 1: Today, C.B.N. at Clarenville
Game 2: Sunday, C.B.N. at Clarenville
Game 3: Mar. 9, Clarenville at C.B.N.
Game 4: Mar. 10, Clarenville at C.B.N.
*Game 5: Mar. 16, C.B.N. at Clarenville
*Game 6: Mar. 17, Clarenville at C.B.N.
*Game 7: Mar. 18, C.B.N. at Clarenville
* - if necessary