Throughout the season, the St. John's IceCaps have been admirable in their refusal to cite injuries and/or call-ups as reasons for losses.
But it's come to the point where even the IceCaps' stoutheartedness can't stand up to stark realities, where dauntless attitude has been eroded, if only a little bit, by the visual evidence of empty stalls and an overcrowded therapy room.
It's not white flags and unconditional surrender. Far from it. But Sunday evening, after the Manchester Monarchs blanked St. John's 3-0 at Mile One Centre, handing the Caps a second straight loss and third in four games, the home team's captain and coach both spoke about the possibility of a tired and ravaged roster being a factor in the result.
"I don't know if it's a matter of fatigue - we've played a lot of hockey in the last while - or if it's injuries catching up to us," said Jason Jaffray, captain of the club which closed out a six games-in-10 days homestand on Sunday using a lineup of 17 skaters, one fewer than the norm.
"But I thought the effort was there tonight."
And Jaffray was right. The effort was superior to what it been Saturday, when the Monarchs won 3-1 in a game that could have featured a far more lopsided score if not for the goaltending heroics of the IceCaps' Eddie Pasquale.
In the past, such responsive effort has helped St. John's rebound from bad losses to post impressive wins. But not so on Sunday in a game that started about as poorly as possible for the IceCaps.
The Monarchs score the eventual game-winner just 20 seconds into the contest on their first shot on goal when Ray Kaunisto, using St. John's defenceman Jason DeSantis as a screen, snapped the puck high and over the glove of a surprised Pasquale. A short time later, IceCaps' all-star defenceman Paul Postma was assisted off the ice after suffering a leg injury in a collision with the Monarchs' Robbie Czarnik.
Postma did not return, leaving St. John's with five defenceman and 11 forwards, including winger Scott Zurevinski, who made his pro debut Saturday only a few hours after arriving in St. John's from Quinnipiac University.
"It was tough to dig out of that hole," head coach Keith McCambridge said. "They get a really good shot through a screen ... tough one for Pasquale to save, and we're playing catch-up from there. Next shift, Postma goes out and we lose one of our best defenceman, a top point-getter and the key (to) our power play.
"On the bench, you're wondering is this going to be one of those nights."
It was, and it may have begun even before the Kaunisto goal or Postma injury.
Such was the state of the IceCaps on Sunday that Zurevinski, signed to an amateur try-out contract, in town less than 24 hours and without the benefit of a full practice with his new team, found himself on the ice for the opening face-off.
Zurevinski performed well, but the need to count so much on significant minutes from a raw newcomer was certainly an indication of what was at play.
"I'm never one to use excuses, but when I look around that room and I see the guys between periods and on the bench, fatigue is a factor," McCambridge said.
"Is it a reason why we lost the game? I can't answer that. But I know that group of guys is pretty tired.
"That group of guys gave it everything they had tonight."
Sunday's was a one-goal game until five minutes into the third period when the Monarchs' Justin Azevedo scored his 20th of the season on another well-placed shot, but one that had Pasquale chastising himself.
However, the low point of the contest came in the middle frame when the IceCaps were awarded two consecutive power plays, but wound up looking mostly disorganized and without a single shot on goal. In fact, the only real scoring chances in that stretch- and there were a couple of dandies - came from the shorthanded Monarchs. If not for saves from Pasquale, the booing by some if the 34th straight sell-out crowd might have been more widespread.
In the last minute of the game, Andrei Loktionov scored the second empty-netter in as many days for Manchester (33-29-3), which leaves Newfoundland with four valuable points. The Monarchs, who hadn't beaten the IceCaps in five previous meetings before the weekend, are seventh in the AHL's Eastern Conference, where just six points separates eight teams - Manchester being one of them - battling for the last two playoff berths.
Jeff Zatkoff stopped 27 shots, including 13 in the third period for the shutout. Pasquale, making an eight straight start, made 19 saves and continued to reduce his goals-against average, but couldn't prevent St. John''s from going 3-3 in its homestand and 18-13-3 overall at Mile One.
The IceCaps (38-18-7) begin a six-game road trip Wednesday in Hershey with only a baker's dozen of games left on the regular-season schedule. With Postma adding to a long line at the infirmary (see accompanying story) and leading scorer Spencer Machacek on recall to the parent Winnipeg Jets, they'll be looking for lineup additions and for the injury list to start dwindling instead of growing.
"Hopefully, the (injured) guys can back get back fresh for the last little stretch before playoffs. That's all you can really for," said Jaffray before mentioning Postma's injury.
"That didn't look good. To see a guy who has been so valuable for us this year to have to be carried off the ice. It seems every game we have one or two guys going down."
The IceCaps' captain did note how ell Zurevinski played on the weekend and the recent contributions of rookies Jason Gregoire and Eric O'Dell. But even then, that was a reminder of recent travails, since O'Dell wasn't available Sunday. He'd been injured the night previous and couldn't go in the rematch. That made eight injured scratches heading into Sunday. Add in Postma and Machacek, and St. John's finished the night with 10 regular players unavailable for duty.
Despite the lost weekend, St. John's continues to hold a substantial 14-point first-place lead over the Monarchs in the AHL's Atlantic Division and actually saw its magic number to clinch a playoff berth (in terms of points) drop to eight ... The IceCaps remain in second place in the Eastern Conference, but have fallen 10 points behind the conference-leading Norfolk Admirals, who set an AHL record Sunday by beating the Charlotte Checkers 5-0 for an 18th straight win ... St. John's was scoreless on the power play (zero-for-five) in the series with Manchester, but went a perfect seven-for-seven on the penalty kill over the two games ... Sunday's result marked just the second time the IceCaps were shut out this season. The Hamilton Bulldogs whitewashed St. John's 4-0 in the Caps' home opener in mid-October ... Sunday's Molson Cup three stars were all Monarchs: 1. Thomas Hickey 2. Jeff Zatkoff 3. Ray Kaunisto ... The Mary Brown's hardest working IceCap was Jason Jaffray ... Spencer Machacek was recalled from St. John's to Winnipeg Saturday afternoon because of an injury to Eric Fehr and played Sunday night against Carolina. His assist on Antti Miettinen's second-period goal gave Machacek his first point in 15 NHL games ...