The St. John’s IceCaps didn’t just win a pair of games over the weekend. They won them in gritty, dig-down-deep fashion, the kind championship-calibre teams usually pull off.
They didn’t just make a statement. They ended it with an exclamation point.
The crowning of the Manchester Monarchs Friday and Saturday, by 4-2 and 3-2 scores at Mile One Centre, where home hasn’t been so sweet this season, was the kind of stuff teams can look back on at year’s end and cite as a difference maker in the season.
On Saturday night, rookie John Albert scored with 42 seconds left in regulation time to give St. John’s an American Hockey League series sweep of Manchester, only the second time this year the IceCaps have managed to take two games in a row at Mile One, and the first time since Nov. 4-5 when the home side turned the trick in back-to-back games, that coming against the Connecticut Whale.
On Friday, the ’Caps overcame a two-goal deficit to storm back and score four unanswered goals, including the tying and game-winning goals by Shawn Weller, back in the lineup after missing 10 games to injury.
The IceCaps woke up this morning on top of the AHL’s Atlantic Division with 47 points (24-8-4-1) after trailing Manchester by a point entering weekend play.
“It definitely gives us some really good building blocks,” IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge said of the two wins. “We had to start coming in here and establishing some wins at home. Everybody knew that, and we did that against a very good team.
“We knew this was for top spot in our division and we came out with some really strong play. I will say it definitely shows we are a really good team, we’ve played hard all season long and we’ve earned where we are in the standings. We put a stamp on it by winning these two games against a strong opponent.”
Spencer Machacek and Jason Gregoire also scored for the IceCaps Saturday before a sold-out crowd of 6,287, the 18th straight full house at Mile One this season. Rob Mignardi and Dwight King replied for the Monarchs.
Just as they did Friday, it was the Monarchs providing the only scoring in the first period, but Machacek evened things 1:26 into the second period, netting his ninth goal, but only his first in the past half-dozen games.
Machacek was busy over the weekend, firing nine shots on goal Saturday and eight Friday.
“I hope I didn’t offend my linemates,” said the 24-year-old Albertan. “I don’t think I passed up a pass for a shot. I’m usually a shoot-first type of guy, but this year I’ve been passing a lot. This weekend I wanted to come in and fire everything on net.
“When you’re in a little bit of a slump, the best thing is to shoot from everywhere.”
The score stood 1-1 after 40 minutes until Gregoire gave St. John’s its first lead five minutes into the third period. However, with Jason DeSantis off for slashing, King banged a loose puck past David Aebischer to knot the score at two with 2:31 left in regulation time.
With overtime looming, Monarchs defenceman Thomas Hickey, the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft who finished the night minus-three, threw the puck up the middle. Albert was there to intercept and his quick shot fooled Manchester goalie Martin Jones, who turned in a second straight solid goaltending effort for Manchester, making 33 saves.
“It’s good to pull it out at home for the fans, but especially for us,” said Albert, the rookie out of Ohio State University. “We’ve been working hard. It’s a great couple of wins for us.”
While Albert’s late game-winner was the storyline of Saturday’s matchup, not to be overlooked was the work of the IceCaps’ penalty killers in the second period, specifically when Ben Maxwell was given a five-minute boarding major and game misconduct for a dangerous hit-from-behind on Rob Mignardi.
Mignardi lay on the ice for several minutes, but headed for the dressing room on his own steam. As of Sunday, there was no ruling from the AHL on the hit, but Maxwell can probably expect a call and possible suspension from the league’s Springfield, Mass., office.
“They score a goal there and we’re in a pretty deep hole,” McCambridge said. “That was a big turning point for us, and not lose any momentum in the game.
“There wasn’t a doubt from the coaches point of view, and the players point of view, that we could win those games. We’ve talked all season long about the character we have in that room and they were two character wins.
“This is about us establishing ourselves and really driving home that we’re sitting in the standings where we are for a reason.”
Friday night, Weller scored his fourth and fifth goals of the season. DeSantis and Jason Jaffray, with an insurance marker with 55 seconds left in regulation time, also scored for St. John’s. Robbie Czarnik and Linden Vey scored the game’s first two goals.
Jeff Zatkoff was outstanding in the Monarchs’ net, making 43 saves. Manchester got strong goaltending Saturday as well.
Aebischer made a combined 36 saves on the weekend.
The IceCaps have today off before they’re back at it again Tuesday and Wednesday night (7:30 p.m.) against the Toronto Marlies. The Marlies, tops in the North Division within the Western Conference, have only eight wins in 20 road games. But two of those victories came courtesy of the IceCaps, who lost 4-3 and 6-3 to Toronto last month at Mile One.