When the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts and Clarenville Caribous met during the regular season, there was a palpable excitement inside Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium in central Newfoundland and the Clarenville Events Centre.
“I think this rivalry has really built up over the last couple of years,” says Cataracts coach Brian Casey. “It seems like every time we play against each other, there’s always that buzz in the rink.”
That energy should reach a fever pitch when the teams open the 2012 Telegram Herder Memorial Championship Series 7:30 tonight at Mile One Centre in St. John’s. Game 2 goes 2 p.m. Sunday with the series shifting to Corner Brook’s Pepsi Centre for Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, a fifth game next weekend.
Clarenville bench boss Ivan Hapgood recognizes the competitive rivalry between two Newfoundland Senior Hockey League teams, and he knows the Cataracts have good reason to prove themselves against the ‘Bous.
“They were proud to win the Herder last year, but if they were to tell you the truth, the only thing missing from that was that they never got to beat Clarenville in the process,” Hapgood says of last year’s West Coast senior playoffs, which saw the Deer Lake Red Wings eliminate the Caribous and advance to the final against Casey’s Cataracts, who had ousted the Corner Brook Royals.
“We went into their barn the year before and won our shot at the Herder in front of their fans. There’s an intense rivalry there.”
This will be the second straight trip to the Herder for the defending champion Cataracts, who claimed provincial senior hockey bragging rights by eliminating the Conception Bay North CeeBee Stars in four straight last spring. In fact, this marks the 20th time since 1950 that a Grand Falls-based team has competed for Newfoundland’s holy grail of hockey.
The Caribous, meanwhile, are making their third appearance in four years, having won back-to-back Herder titles over the CeeBees in 2009 and 2010.
Clarenville came out on top of Grand Falls-Windsor in their regular-season matchups, taking four of six games, including a pair in central in mid-January.
“We took first place this year, but we got it by going into their barn and taking four points from them. Really, that was an eight-point series,” suggest Hapgood.
In this year’s semifinals, the Herd needed just five games to eliminate the CeeBees and punch their ticket to the final. The Cats took a similar route, beating Royals in five games, including a pair of back-to-back shutout performances by goaltender Mark Yetman.
Given the overwhelming parity between the two clubs, Hapgood believes this series could very well come down to who has the hottest goaltender.
“You’ve got a big guy who stole the show for two Herders and an Allan Cup (Churchill), and a guy who is fighting for the No. 1 status. I think this will be a classic battle between those two guys.
“When all is said and done, it won’t be who the best team is, we’re going to say, ‘Church is still No. 1 or Yetman is the new No. 1.’”
From a stats perspective, however, neither of the teams’ opening-game starters performed overly well against the other team through the regular season. That honour went to their respective backups.
In three starts against Grand Falls-Windsor, Churchill, last year’s Allan Cup MVP, registered just one win and allowed 15 goals. Second-string netminder Devin O’Brien was 3-0 and surrenderd just six goals.
For Grand Falls-Windsor, Yetman won just one of his four starts and posted a 3.77 GAA, while A.J. Whiffen was 1-1 record with a 2.52 GAA.
Regardless, Casey will ride the hot hand.
“He played really well in the Corner Brook series,” Casey said of Yetman, “and we have full confidence in his experience having been in this situation before.”
While Hapgood believes trying to match lines with the Cataracts will be crucial throughout the series, Casey seems less intent on playing that game.
“I’ve always coached in a way that I feel confident in all four lines, but sometimes in a series like this, you’ve got to go with players you think can be a good matchup against the opposition.
“I’ll make sure we pay close attention to certain players, but I don’t want it to be a distraction to the game.”
It’s that way of thinking which Hapgood says makes the Cataracts a different team to play against than others.
“I’ve found when we play them I really have to be on top of my game. Casey is very smart and he’s always looking for that little bit extra.”
For up to the minute updates from Games 1 and 2, CLICK HERE.