The St. John’s IceCaps were 10 points better than the Syracuse Crunch this season, scored a couple more goals than the Crunch, and were far stingier than Syracuse on the goals against ledger.
Still, if one were to take into consideration regular-season meetings this year, it’s the Crunch who have the edge on the IceCaps in their first-round American Hockey League playoff series which opens Friday night in upstate New York.
The IceCaps, with a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference sewn up long ago, finished the regular season Sunday afternoon in Manchester, N.H. with a 4-2 loss to the Monarchs, but had to wait 40 minutes to learn of their first-round playoff opponent.
It wasn’t until Syracuse put the wraps on a 2-1 win over the Albany Devils, solidifying seventh place in the East, that St. John’s could make travel plans.
The IceCaps, 43-25-5-5 and second overall in the East, take on the 37-29-5-5 Crunch Friday and Saturday at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. The best-of-five first round returns to Mile One Centre for Games 3 and, if necessary, 4 and 5 April 25, April 27 and April 28.
The teams faced off against each other four times this season, and it was the Crunch coming out on top with two wins, a loss and a shootout win.
Back in early December, St. John’s edged Syracuse 4-3 at Mile One, but the Crunch rebounded the next night with a 5-3 decision. Last month in New York, the IceCaps lost 6-4 before dropping a 5-4 decision in a game that went to a shootout.
On the stats sheet, St. John’s scored 240 goals to the 238 tallied by Syracuse, but allowed only 216 goals, while the Crunch, farm team of the Anaheim Ducks, had 234 goals scored against them.
“Syracuse is a good team, as are we,” said coach Keith McCambridge. “They have four good lines that add a different dynamic to their offence. They have puck-moving defencemen and good goaltending.
“But every team that is in the playoffs have those elements, and we have those also.
“We’ll have a chance to work on our game here, and tweak some areas.”
Tweaking may be in order after dropping their final two games of the season. Saturday night, St. John’s lost 3-1 to the Springfield Falcons, though the IceCaps did win the opener on the brief road swing, 3-1 over the Sharks in Worcester, Mass., Friday night.
But McCambridge was hardly pressing any panic buttons following the pair of losses, although St. John’s is now 4-6 in its last 10 games.
Rather, he was pleased to see a quartet of IceCaps return from injured reserve, namely Marco Rosa, out since before Christmas with a concussion, Brock Trotter, finally making his debut as an IceCap, and Ray Sawada and Paul Postma.
Only Sawada played all three games, while the other three were eased back in the lineup. Rosa and Trotter played Friday and Saturday, while Postma, the team’s MVP and top rearguard, dressed for the regular season finale after missing 12 games to a leg injury.
“Our objective here was we knew we were adding new elements into out lineup,” said McCambridge, “getting some guys back from injury.
“What we wanted to get out of here was get some guys some icetime, get them into different situations, get them feeling comfortable with their linemates.
“Regardless of not getting any points in the last two games, I felt we got what we wanted.”
Trotter, obtained from the Portland Pirates in a minor league deal last month, is expected to be a key figure in the IceCaps’ offence during the playoffs. He was skating on a line with Patrice Cormier and Spencer Machacek, the IceCaps’ leading scorer (18 goals, 32 assists) this season. Rosa, who was the leading scorer on St. John’s at the time of his injury, skated with Carl Klingberg and rookie Eric O’Dell.
The Monarchs jumped out to a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes at the Verizon Wireless Arena, on goals by Andy Andreoff, his first as a pro, Marc-Andre Cliché and Patrick Mullen. Cormier and Machacek scored in the third, their goals sandwiched by the Monarchs’ Brandon Kozun’s marker.
The win on the final day secured Manchester the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, finishing one point behind the Crunch.
Now Manchester has the big task of taking on the AHL’s best regular-season team, the 55-18-1-2 Norfolk Admirals.
The Pirates were also in the playoff mix, but a 3-2 loss to the Providence Bruins Sunday saw Portland finish with 81 points to the Monarchs’ 83.
Even if the Pirates had beaten the P-Bruins, Portland would still be on the outside looking in as Manchester had more wins.
The IceCaps returned home Sunday night, via charter, and will practice at Mile One this week before heading off to Syracuse.