The St. John’s IceCaps are getting some roster help from the parent Winnipeg Jets, but Tuesday night at Mile One Centre, they did fine with the guys they already have.
The IceCaps (15-4-4) edged the Syracuse Crunch 4-3 for their third win in a row and moved into sole possession of first place overall in the American Hockey League, a point ahead of the idle Oklahoma City Barons.
St. John’s played the game without nine players — five on recall to Winnipeg and four injured — who had been on the roster for its home opener two months ago. However, the Jets are returning defenceman Brett Festerling to the IceCaps and are also sending down centre Ben Maxwell after reclaiming him on waivers from the Anaheim Ducks.
The Maxwell situation is particularly interesting given the IceCaps’ two-game series with the Crunch, which finishes up tonight at Mile One. Had Maxwell, who started this season in Winnipeg, but was lost on a waiver claim to Anaheim, cleared this time, he probably would have ended up with Syracuse, the Ducks’ farm team.
Festerling and Maxwell are due to be in St. John’s today and IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge says he’ll make a decision on their status for tonight’s game after conversations with them.
But if Festerling and/or Maxwell can’t go tonight, McCambridge probably won’t be too concerned, given how well he’s been making out with players who might have once been viewed as substitutes, but are now seeing regular ice time ... and contributing.
A month ago, it would have been easy to peg those who would get knocked down in the pecking order with the arrival of players like Maxwell and Festerling. You’d look no further than rookies like forwards Eric O’Dell and Shayne Wiebe, who couldn’t squeeze into the St. John’s lineup in October and rearguard Jake Marto, who was with Colorado of the ECHL when the 2011-12 AHL campaign began.
Not so anymore.
“It’s harder, without a doubt,” said McCambridge when asked about the choices he’s facing.
“Those players have really put a stamp on what we’ve thought of them as players ... you know, their skill level, how they compete. O’Dell, Wiebe both were really strong again tonight. Marto has moved himself from a No. 6 (defenceman) to a No. 2.
“It makes those decisions hard, but those are decisions you want to have to make. You know (it means) your team is getting stronger. We’ve been weathering some shortness with injuries and call-ups, but now the opportunity to have some guys on the flip-side, coming back, is something we’d like to manage.”
All of St. John’s goals Tuesday came in the second period and included a bing, bang, boom flurry that saw Aaron Gagnon, Kenndall McArdle and Patrice Cormier tally in a 63-second span, quickly erasing the 1-0 lead the Crunch had taken into the first intermission.
Zach Redmond scored the eventual game-winner for the home side about six minutes after the three-goal outburst, slipping a shot between a defender’s legs, through a screen by Cormier and past Crunch goalie Iiro Tarkki.
Redmond’s marker was also the third on the power play for the IceCaps, a performance that helped boost what had been a shabby 12.7 percent success rate in man-advantage situations at Mile One.
Nicolas DesChamps, Kyle Palmieri and Brandon McMillan replied for Syracuse (10-9-2), a team that — on Tuesday night at least — appeared much better than its mediocre record.
Not that the Caps didn’t appear in control of Tuesday’s game for the greater share of time, but Tarrki, a 26-year-old Finn who made 35 saves, kept the Crunch within hailing distance and the visitors, who have more than a few offensive weapons, rallied in the third, getting goals from Palmieri and McMillan
But the IceCaps and goalie David Aebischer, who has started all three games in the recent win streak, held the bridge, especially against a final, furous charge by the Crunch in the game’s waning seconds, with Tarkki on the bench for an extra attacker.
Aebischer faced 28 shots, more than half of them coming in the final period. That meant long periods of inactivity through the first 40 minutes, but the veteran — who experienced similar circumstances in back-to-back road wins over Hamilton and Toronto on the weekend — maintained his focus.
“Hockey is a fast sport. All of a sudden there can be a breakaway or a two-on-one, so you have to try to be ready at all times,” said Aebischer, whose three starts have come after almost a month as a backup or odd-man out in the IceCaps’ three-goalie grouping.
The last time he had that much time off, said Aebischer, came during the 2001 NHL playoffs, when he saw a just few minutes of action in the second round, and nothing more, as the backup to Patrick Roy during the Colorado Avalanche’s march to the Stanley Cup.