“That,” said Glenn Stanford, “is as good as it gets.”
You could be forgiven for thinking Stanford, the chief operating officer of the St. John’s IceCaps, was talking about the IceCaps’ 5-1 win over the Syracuse Crunch Wednesday night at Mile One Centre, a result that puts the St. John’s one victory away from advancing in the American Hockey League’s playoffs.
In fact, his comments came during the second-period intermission, when Wednesday’s result was still in doubt.
Stanford’s mid-game appreciation was for the sellout crowd of 6,287 at Mile One, but not especially for their numbers. Let’s face it, it was not a shock to see Mile One packed; Wednesday’s was a 39th consecutive full house for an AHL game in St. John’s this season and was the first Calder Cup playoff contest in St. John’s since April of 2005, just before the AHL Leafs franchise was packed up and shipped to Toronto to become the Marlies.
Stanford’s observation was mostly about the clothing the fans wore and the voices they brought.
More than three-quarters of those in attendance were garbed in white in response to a “whiteout” request from the team. And this wasn’t a matter of fans showing up to find white T-shirts on their seats as is often the case when such events are held in NHL rinks. The white, in this case, came out of closets and drawers in homes.
Granted, there wasn’t uniformity to the uniforms. There were more than a few white jerseys of NHL teams other than the Winnipeg Jets, the IceCaps’ parent club, and one instance of a fan wearing the Montreal Canadiens’ “CH” seated next to another with the blue leaf of Toronto right behind the players bench.
Nobody seemed to mind, especially the IceCaps.
“It was great, just great. The best,” said St. John’s goaltender Eddie Pasquale, who made 40 saves Wednesday.
“With the white shirts and everything, it was pretty cool.”
Pasquale was the first star of Game 3, but St. John’s coach Keith McCambridge felt the fans deserved an honourable mention, especially for the noise level — cheering augmented by stomping, clapping and clacking (noise-makers were handed out).
“Outstanding,” said McCambridge when asked his assessment of what he heard and saw. “I believe they were a factor in tonight’s game, without a doubt.
“You could feel the energy in warm-up. You could feel the energy at the start of the game ... the excitement, the intensity. Everything you could want from a Canadian market on your home ice we had tonight, and then some.”
The home side helped, too. Despite a slightly nervous start and having to survive an early Syracuse power play, the IceCaps gave the fans lots to cheer about, from Patrice Cormier’s game-opening goal midway through the first period to the scrap between St. John’s leading scorer Spencer Machacek and Syracuse defenceman Nick Schaus in the final minute of the third.
In between, there was a solid performance from Pasquale — “I thought that was the best game he has played in the series so far,” said Syracuse coach Trent Yawney — and a balanced scoring attack, with St. John’s getting goals from five different players.
Derek Meech, Brock Trotter, John Albert and Ben Maxwell also scored for St. John’s, which can take the best-of-five Eastern Conference semifinal with a win at Mile One Friday night.
Dan Sexton had the lone marker for Syracuse, which will be looking to extend the series to a fifth and deciding game, which would go Saturday night at Mile One.
The IceCaps continued to get strong performances from the likes of Derek Meech and centre Aaron Gagnon, who didn’t have a point Wednesday, but was plus-two, making him plus-five in the series. The fourth line — McCambridge prefers the term “energy line” — of Ray Sawada, Garth Murray and Albert was a difference-maker much of the night, and the special teams were good, with St. John’s getting power-play goals from Cormier (on a first-period five-on-three) and Trotter, while the penalty killers successfully dealt with three Syracuse man-advantage chances.
However, McCambridge wasn’t thrilled about all aspects of the IceCaps’ performance Wednesday. You might say he loved the crowd, but just liked his team.
“Overall, there were some real positive things, but there are areas we need to clean up,” said the St. John’s coach. “I didn’t like our turnovers on the blueline. I thought we didn’t manage pucks very well at times.
“I liked the energy and the fact we played with more speed and pace, but the turnovers at this time of year can’t take place.”
The most obvious example of the latter came in the first period. With St. John’s leading 1-0 on Cormier’s goal and the crowd maintaining it’s volume, IceCaps’ defenceman Jason DeSantis made an ill-advised pass into the middle of the ice from along the boards. Sexton pounced on it, skated across the St. John’s blueline and zipped a well-place shot past Pasquale and just inside the goal post.
The goal de-energized the building for a while, but McCambridge lauded DeSantis’s ability to not let that one play put a grey tint to his entire game.
“I thought in the second period, he bounced back from a turnover that could have put his mindset in the wrong area. He made some good plays and got his game back to where it needs to be.
“He’s been a dependable guy and that (first-period giveaway) was uncharacteristic of him.”
Pasquale has faced 118 shots through the first three games of the series and made 111 stops for a .941 save percentage, third-best among AHL goalies thought the opening week of the playoffs.
He has looked poised in doing so.
“It’s important the guys see you looking calm in the net, because they’re reading off your body language,” said Pasquale, “and for me, when I’m relaxed, I’m not fighting the puck.
“It’s a good thing all around.”
Pasquale’s best save may have come early in the third period with the score 3-1 when he stopped junior scoring sensation Emerson Etem. Shortly afterwards, a shot by Syracuse defenceman Nate Guenin went off teammate (and former IceCap) Riley Holzapfel, knocking Holzapfel out of the play temporarily. Arturs Kulda gathered up the puck and fed it to Sawada, who made a nice feed to Albert, who completed the play by deking out Syracuse goalie Iiro Tarkki for the IceCaps’ fourth goal
Tarkki faced 38 shots.
Jets’ 2011 first-round draft pick Mark Scheifele made his AHL debut for St. John’s, playing centre on a line with Marco Rosa and Carl Klingberg. The unit didn’t produce any goals, but became more of factor as the game proceeded.
“The first period was a bit of an adjustment, but as things went along and I got used to my linemates and used to the speed of the game and strength of the players, it got better,” said Scheifele.
“I think it was a good game overall.”
The five-on-three power play that led to Cormier’s goals was created by a too-many-men call made by a linesman.
Yawney felt it was “a weak call,” but didn’t see it as an early turning point,
“I thought there was plenty of time for our team to respond to something like that,” said the Syracuse coach.
It wasn’t just the IceCaps who appreciated the energy of Wednesday’s crowd. Both Yawney and Guenin said it was a great atmosphere for the visitors, too.
“Oh, yeah. It’s definitely a fun place to play,” said Guenin, who spent most of the season with the parent Anaheim Ducks, meaning this was his first visit to Mile One.
Guenin said he was looking forward to a similar environment on Friday in Game 4.
“And on Saturday, too,” he added with a slight smile.
Notes: Wednesday’s three stars were all IceCaps: 1. Eddie Pasquale 2. Derek Meech (goal and an assist) 3. Arturs Kulda (two assists, plus-two) ... Brian Rogers’ choice as the hardest-working St. John’s player: Ray Sawada ... Among those in attendance at Wednesday’s game: St. John’s native and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Teddy Purcell, coming off the best-ever single-season scoring performance by an NHler from Newfoundland ... Rookie centre Peter Holland, Syracuse’s second-leading scorer in the regular season, didn’t play Wednesday and hasn’t played since taking an elbow to the head in the Crunch’s second-last regular-season game.