The playoffs are always described as the start of a new season, but the reality is there is plenty of carry-over from the regular-season campaign.
There are certainly the physical reminders: the bruises players can’t ignore, the little bit of a limp they can’t completely disguise, the overall wear and tear that means the chassis and engine are far from the showroom condition of Game 1 back in October.
“You basically grind through it,” said St. John’s IceCaps winger Jason King, looking ahead to Friday and the start of a first-round American Hockey League playoff series against the Syracuse Crunch.
“One thing you always have to keep in mind is that it’s not just you or your team. Every team is playing sore and hurt and tired at this time of the year.
“In the AHL, with the way our schedule is, playing three-in-threes and stuff, it’s rare to have a perfectly healthy team going into the playoffs. So it’s a matter of battling through it, and a lot of the time, that comes down to the mental side, willing yourself through it.”
For the IceCaps part of the pick-me-up is in knowing they will be icing perhaps their best line-up of the season on Friday. Forwards Marco Rosa, Brock Trotter and Ray Sawada, along with defencemen Derek Meech and Paul Postma, the team’s MVP, all recently returned to action after significant time on the injury list. And outside of team captain Jason Jaffray, out for the season, and forward Maxime Macenauer, still day-to-day, every regular or would-be regular should be good to go for Game 1 in Syracuse.
But the pick-me-up tonic comes with an advisory. Rosa, who was the team’s leading scorer before being sidelined with a concussion in December; Trotter a proven playoff performer whose only games with the IceCaps were played last weekend; and Meech, an NHL-calibre rearguard has missed most of the season with a knee problems, all bring much to the table, but it’s not as if their return is simply a matter of plug-and-play.
“You get revved up, certainly, but for us, it was kind of a strange end to the season. We had so many injuries and so many guys filling in, you could say we never did have the team we’re going to have Friday,” said King.
“For the last little while, with so many guys in and out, our lines have been all over the place, This week of practice will be crucial in terms of getting us back on track as to who is doing what and who’s playing with who ....especially to get our power play going again, to get our game going where we were a few months ago.”
Indeed, the IceCaps were treading water as they dealt with an epidemic of injuries and collateral cases of call-ups. They were 9-1 in a 10-game stretch in January and February, but in the two months since then, went 11-13-2, including two losses — one in regulation, one in a shootout — to Syracuse.
There also was what St. John’s head coach Keith McCambridge calls “the challenge” of finding motivation over the last few weeks for a team that was pretty much locked in as the second seed in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.
“You’re playing teams, who in many cases, are battling just to get into the playoffs, but for us, the players know those games don’t have much meaning,” he said.
That meant McCambridge was happy to be able to use last weekend’s three-game, season-ending road trip to New England to reintroduce (or in the case of Trotter, introduce) players back to game-day lineups.
“You try new line combinations, get them as much ice time as possible, identify areas we need to work on with the new guys in there,” he said.
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“And (you find out) what’s your identity. You spend a season forming identity, but as you bring in guys, you make adjustments.
“Would we like to have more time to work on all of that? Yeah.
“But we got the most we could out of what we wanted personnel-wise and assessment-wise.”
The best-of-five first round series against the Crunch begins with games in Syracuse Friday and Saturday and then moves to Mile One Centre for games April 25 and, if necessary April 27 and 28. It’s a series schedule dictated by the distance between Newfoundland and upstate New York and league guidelines that make the highest seed in such instances choose between playing two games at home at the start of the series or three at the back end. The IceCaps decided on the latter.
“The key is to win down there,” said King. “We can’t come back here expecting to win three games just because we’re home. We have to be in the mindset of going down there and getting two wins and coming back here in the best possible position.
“Having just five games in the series definitely rips the first round off pretty quick. That’s why the start Friday night is going to be huge. It’s important to get that first game and go from there.”
In other words, if you’re starting a new season, you better to start it right.